How to Write a Research Proposal

So you have to do a research survey or a research proposal: what are you going to do? The following is intended to give suitable guidance as to what is expected. It is not, however, exhaustive, so feel free to ask questions. Just read this first, and then ask questions.

First note that a research proposal is a survey together with the identification of an open research issue that needs to be addressed, and some indication of how it can be addressed. If a research survey is done well, it is often the case that one or more open research problems become almost self-evident. However, the simple statement of an open research problem does not turn a survey into a proposal. For example, Fermat's Last Theorem was an open research problem for nearly 350 years. Surveying the foundational mathematics and stating Fermat's Last Theorem does not turn the survey into a proposal. Some notion of how the theorem could be proved or disproved would also be required.

The degree of detail in the description of how the open problem can be addressed is one measure of the quality of the proposal. At the very least, a proposed method for addressing the problem should be provided. For example, packet-switched networks cannot easily provide quality of service to their traffic flows. A method for addressing this problem might involve a half-baked idea (e.g. We plan to solve the problem first in a network where everyone is benign, no nodes crash, no routes change, and the only thing that can be reserved is bandwidth. We believe that we can then aggregate the bandwidth flows into a single number (current reserved bandwidth.) together with a suggestion for how that idea might be proved/disprove (e.g. We will simulate our half-baked algorithm using the Frobniac benchmark and the WizzleWare network simulator.)

Now, about the survey portion: writing a survey is not an easy thing. It requires you to have studied a substantial portion of the literature in your chosen topic area, understood it well enough to figure out the "landscape," and have the maturity to explain the landscape to others. For good examples, go and read some articles in the ACM Computing Surveys. Not all of them are good, but most are. (As a UW student, they are accessible to you online.)

General pointers on writing a survey:

  1. Do not give a listing of papers with short summaries of each. A document that says "paper 1 has done this, paper 2 has done the other" makes for a very poor survey. What you should do is understand the field and figure out what the alternative techniques, algorithms, etc. are and organize your survey accordingly. A very useful thing to develop when writing a survey is a taxonomy of the field, with suitable orthogonal axes. A good taxonomy is hard to develop, but well worth the effort in the understanding that it brings to the field. Having done that, individual papers simply serve as examples that clarify what you are saying, and fit into appropriate places in the taxonomy.
  2. Do NOT directly copy material from papers without attribution. This is called plagiarism. It is both an academic offense and amounts to fraud. If you paraphrase something that is in a paper, put a reference to that paper. If you take a passage verbatim, put it in quotes ("...") and put a reference. Violations of this rule are easy to detect because of the change in writing style. Further, with Web search engines available it is easy to find the source within a very short time. A strategy that may help you avoid this danger is to never read and write at the same time. Do not have the paper in front of you when you are summarizing the ideas it contains!
  3. Pay close attention to your writing.
    1. USE A SPELL CHECKER. Far too many documents have spelling errors in them. There is absolutely NO excuse for spelling errors giving the wide availability of tools for checking spelling.
    2. Make sure the grammar is correct. Get a copy of "Strunk and White: The Elements of Style." In a very thin volume it will tell you all you need to know to write correct English.
    3. Make sure that you are communicating your ideas clearly. Just because you understand what you have written does not mean that someone else will understand. Just because your document is grammatically correct does not mean that the ideas are presented in a clear manner. Identify your audience and write accordingly. Finish your survey a few days ahead of time, get some sleep, and the re-read it carefully. Better yet, get someone else to read the document and provide feedback.
    4. Pay attention to your phraseology. A technical paper is a formal, scientific document. There is no place in such documents for phrases like "this is crap," "the idea is not worth anything," "deserves applause," "way too much," etc. (you get the idea) are not to be used. You will have read enough papers by the time you start writing the survey to get an idea. Similarly, contractions (e.g. don't, won't, etc.) have no place in formal writing. A technical report should not read like a conversation.
  4. Take your WYSIWYG wordprocessor, throw it in the garbage, and get a copy of LaTeX. WYSIWYG systems cause you to focus on the wrong thing, viz layout. Layout is the least important aspect of a technical document. Structure is the most important aspect. Pleasant layout can never compensate for poor structure. Systems such as LaTeX cause you to focus on structure, and leave the layout to the typesetting system.
  5. Read (and follow) this advice in research and writing especially the piece about how to organize your thesis which can (with little modification) apply to writing any good piece of research.
  6. Content: A typical research survey/proposal/paper contains the following:

Technical Specifications

How long is a research proposal? The correct answer to this question is "As long as it needs to be and no longer." Unfortunately, this causes some students to produce great tomes of dense material and others to produce fluffy dossiers devoid of substance. Neither are appealing to read, though at least the fluffy ones have the virtue of being quick and easy to read.

The only way to avoid these extremes, it appears, is to provide specific guidance regarding the number of pages the document should contain, together with font size and margins, etc. as this is (regrettably) also necessary. The following seem to be about the right amount, for either a survey of a proposal.

  1. 25 to 30 pages. Absolutely no longer than 30 pages without prior approval. This includes everything (references, appendices, etc)
  2. 11 pt if you are typesetting in LaTeX and 12 pt if you are typesetting in Word.
  3. 1.5 spacing
  4. 1 inch margins on all sides

Questions Pertaining to this Document

As a result of having this document on the web, I have started to receive various questions. Since one person asked the question, it is possible that others would also like to know the answer.

  1. Does it really have to be 25 pages?

    Well, let's think about this for a bit: if I write a document that is 25 pages minimum in LaTeX how long is that in practice? Since this includes everything, it is really only 20 pages, as there will be a title page, an abstract, possibly a table of contents and a list of figures, and a page for references (possibly two). If you use report style, and their are five chapters, the average chapter will be four pages, with the first page 3/4 full and the last page on average half full. So that reduces 20 to 16.25 pages. At 1.5 spacing, that is about 27 lines. At 11 point with 1 inch margins, depending on the font you use, there will be around 15 words per line. So 27x15x16.25 is more or less 6500 words. Is it that hard to write 6500 words on a technical topic?

  2. Is there any minimum number of references we must use?

    You should have all references necessary to cover the area you are investigating. If that is a very large number, then you are probably not focused enough. If that is a very small number, then it may not be a topic of much interest to people (and thus does not satisfy the significance requirement for good research).

A Final Note

This is a work in progress. It started with an e-mail from Tamer Ozsu to graduate students who had just submitted some (presumably poor quality) surveys. Having faced the problem of graduate students asking what was expected in a research survey or proposal, and explaining the same thing many times, I was quite happy to get a copy of this e-mail from Tamer, and have used it as a base with which to create this document. I expect the document will change somewhat over time, and would encourage those of you who have graduate students who face this same problem to link to this page, or to e-mail me your own suggestions that I may add them to this document.

If you still have questions drop me a line.

Last modified: Mon May 2 14:08:12 EDT 2005