Hey guys, buckle up for a new episode of Becoming First Author! The one and only podcast made to teach rising medical authors like you how to pave your way into the peer-review literature; whether you’re a student, resident, faculty, or staff, you’re sure to pick up tidbits of actionable advice when you listen to Becoming First Author.

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How to Develop a Research Idea

Today we’re going to talk about how to develop a research idea. The research for a journal manuscript or a grant application can only be as good as the idea with which you start. If you lack a compelling and novel idea, it’s unlikely that your research will be accepted or your grant project funded. It’s just that simple. There’s no amount of window dressing in authorship or grantsmanship that can overcome a bad idea. The first step in developing a research project is to ensure that your idea is nothing short of outstanding. Peer review journals offer us a way to have a global scholarly conversation about an important topic. And each new paper offers a new perspective or a sliver of truth that can be added to the conversation.

That’s the heart of becoming a peer-review author, sharing a new nugget of truth to an ongoing academic conversation. So how do you find an academic conversation to join? All scholarly conversations are framed by keywords in the literature. If you have the right mix of keywords together in the library search bar, you’ll find the scholarly conversation about that topic. So the first step is to seek inspiration and brainstorm a list of possible ideas. Your research idea needs to be fresh and relevant and interesting. So read as much as you can on your topic. Read journal articles through the library website, talk to people in the field. While you’re reading and exploring, make lists and possibilities and research those. Take a deep dive down multiple pathways. Don’t get stuck on just one thing right now, your goal is to brainstorm potential topics, gather as much information as you can take notes and keep track of them while you’re searching for topic ideas.

Make it Personal and Find the Joy

Try to make it personal. If you don’t have a personal connection to your research topic, you may decide to go with something else. Ideally, you need a passion and a drive for research. Something that will bring you joy in research, pick something you like, take something that has personal meaning and apply it to your research. One question I get a lot from first-time authors is: “Holly, how do you know when you found what you’re looking for?” How do you know when you found that good idea? So, when you find a question that won’t go away, when you can’t stop thinking about an idea, when you go home, and at the dinner table with your spouse or your family, you say, “Hey guys, have you heard about this crazy thing?” Dig deeper into that question. Talk to your advisors and professors and continue to read, read, read! Inspiration is a gradual and progressive elaboration over time. Eureka! doesn’t just hit like an asteroid. It’s gradual. It’s progressive. Wait for it. It’ll come.

Identify a Gap and Narrow Your Focus

Now you have a broad topic and maybe even a possible idea for a research question that’s meaningful to you. So where do you go next? The second step is to identify and verify a gap in the literature. And the only way to do that is through a literature review. A literature review is fundamental in generating an irresistible research idea. It’s necessary to determine what’s already known and published in that area. And the extent to which that body of knowledge is reliable or needs to be critically examined. And, and this is the key. What we don’t know, what are the unknowns in this conversation? So set up a library of articles within a citation software: Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley. Keep track of the literature that you find and set up an email alert for any new articles that may be published in this conversation.

Now that you have a general idea of what’s been published, you can proceed to step three, which is narrowing your focus to a concise, preliminary research question. That’s pertinent to the problem. You’ve chosen retain ideas as you critically read through the literature, but continue that review until it’s been completed. The worst thing that you can do in this business is to write a manuscript or a grant application on a project that’s already been written, right? Then you’re up the proverbial creek and your manuscript will not be publishable, whether it creates the opposite problem, which your research idea becomes too narrowly defined. And then you can’t locate enough research or data to support your study.

One of the things that’s really important at this stage is narrowing down your topic. If your topic is too broad, you’ll have a couple of different problems. You’ll find too many information sources, which will make it difficult to decide what to include or exclude, or just identifying what the most important sources are. You’ll find information that’s maybe too general. And as a consequence, it can be really difficult to develop a clear framework from that point. And then you’ll also lack from sufficient parameters that clearly define what is the problem that you’re trying to solve. So in order to avoid a topic that’s too broad, you really need to adopt some strategies for narrowing that topic down to the absolute essential point. So here are just a few strategies to help you narrow down your topic.

First, you may think about the aspect or the lens through which you’re going to view the problem. Look at just one facet, such as a particular population or a specific institution. You might also look at one specific component or a specific group of components. Most of our variables can be broken down into smaller parts, which can then be analyzed more precisely. So you might think about the different components of your study. And if you can break it down a little bit further or into smaller parts, another way to narrow down your focus would be methodology or the way in which you gather information. So if you’re going to do a quantitative or qualitative study, that’s another way to narrow down your research focus. Also think about relationships, ask yourself how do one or more of the different perspectives or variables that you have, how do they relate to one another and then designing a study around the relationship between those variables that can also help to constrict the scope of analysis. And then finally, think about the timing. A shorter time period of the study will also dramatically narrow the focus. If you’re looking at specific years or a specific population narrowing down that time or type exactly what you’re looking at that will also help to focus your topic more narrowly. Any of these strategies will help you narrow down your topic and give you a more manageable research problem to investigate. You will know if the problem is more manageable or if you’ve narrowed the topic down far enough, if your literature search in the library search bar returns between 150 and 200 articles, and the first five articles are exactly on topic. Right? That’s about where you want to be when you’re looking at a lit review for a new research project. A note of caution, though, when you combine a few of these strategies together, it creates the opposite problem, which your research idea becomes too narrowly defined. And then you can’t locate enough research or data to support your study. Okay? Once you’ve completed your review, go back to your notes and ideas and see what prospects or ideas excite you. What are the questions that have not been answered? And of those, what are the questions that are within your capabilities to answer? Okay, hopefully, at this point you’ve created a focused research question.

Assess for Success

Now it’s time for step four, which is to assess your ideas potential for success and then modify it, if necessary. So ask: Will this idea impact significantly on my field and can I convince others of that fact? If not revisit the materials with a fresh mind in a few days and evolve a more novel, important idea. Remember, the idea is the foundation of a successful project. Next, you really need to ask yourself if you have the ability to pursue this idea. Regardless of how good it is conceptually, your research idea has to be one that’s within your capabilities to pursue, practically speaking. Feasibility is so important when we talk about research ideas, is this something that you can do? Do you have the resources? Do you have a way to access the population? Do you have a way to measure your variables through a validated survey? Think about the logistics. How will you accurately measure the question you’re trying to answer? You also need to think about your end goal publishing in a peer-review journal. Search for a target journal that fits your field of research and whose publishing characteristics meet your needs. Make sure that the topic you’ve chosen is something that your target journal would be interested in publishing.

This brings us to the final step of developing a research idea, which is step five, seek constructive criticism from knowledgeable colleagues. The best way to do this is to send a brief overview no more than one page and ask your colleagues for ways in which you can improve your idea. Because the research idea that underlies a great manuscript or a grant application is so fundamentally important to its success. You need to do everything possible to ensure that you have the strongest idea and the strongest starting position on which to build an essential part of this is to seek that critical feedback from your colleagues and your mentors, and refine your idea to maximize its impact, critically examine the colleagues’ feedback. And if you agree, modify your research idea accordingly, the bottom line is that you must have total confidence in that final product. That research idea will drive your project. Is it completely sound, and will it make a difference in your field.

Setting Publishing Goals

Now that we’ve completed the five steps to creating an amazing, compelling, irresistible research idea, it’s time to start setting publishing goals for the next two years. It’s becoming increasingly important to publish in a scientific journal, and publish often most upper-level positions require a distinguished record of sustained scholarship and research. So how do we, as researchers, develop a distinguished record of sustained scholarship? Here are a few practical steps you can take this year to begin your journey to being published.

First, you need to identify three to five journals that publish in your area of expertise. Try to choose a few journals that will be easy to submit and are most likely to publish a first-time author, such as professional associations. Research each of these five journals that you’ve chosen. Look at the types of articles that they’re publishing the format, the length of each article, look at any suggested topics that the journal may provide. Notice any publication, deadlines, or timing issues when it comes to submissions, what are the author fees to publish? What is the impact factor of the journal? The goal here is to get a good idea of what your target journal will be.

Next, brainstorm 5 to 10 article topics, and assign each topic to a target journal. Everyone has ideas, and everyone can write a journal article. Take your time and review your portfolio. Write down all your ideas that you have for potential journal articles, review the suggested topics from your target journals, and then pair each of your topics with one of your target journals. All right, now you have good ideas and they’re paired with a target journal. You’re starting to set some goals.

Next, you need to identify potential co-authors and begin networking. So for each article, you should identify one to three co-authors that you can ask to assist you with the preparation of the manuscript. Be cognizant of everyone’s time, specialty, and rank. Add your immediate coworkers to the easier journals, and then reach out to the department chairs or the higher-level faculty for the more complex topics in higher-impact journals. And finally, sketch out your plan for the next two years. Use those research questions and your target journals with your co-authors to sketch out a timeline for what projects you will accomplish over the next two years.

We hope you enjoyed this first episode of Becoming First Author! If you did, please leave us a review and share this episode with your friends.

Next time. We’ll talk about how to search the scientific literature.