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Before You Start Your Research: Writing Protocols

Learn about how to publish in a scholarly journal
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Why write a protocol?

A protocol is a document in which a research team lays out in detail what question they are trying to answer, why it is important to answer it in the context of the existing published research as well as the wants and needs of stakeholders, and exactly how the team are going to answer it. 

Sometimes a protocol will be required in order for the team to apply for research funding or to submit to a research ethics process.  For certain types of studies, like clinical trials and systematic reviews, standards include requirements for protocols and there are a growing number of journals that require a protocol be registered and/or published before the completed paper is submitted for publication. 

Even when there isn't an outside body requiring that a research team produce a protocol, writing one can help the team with their research in a number of ways: 

  • Identify possible weaknesses of the project and methods and plan how to address them where possible.
  • Identify potential areas of ethical concern, and how to handle them.
  • Serve as a "road map" guiding the team through the project.
  • Provide accountability and discourage cutting corners when difficulties arise.
  • Prevent "scope creep" by keeping the team focused on answering the identified research question using the identified methods.
  • Identify tools, resources, expertise etc. that will be needed at different stages before they are needed, preventing delays.
  • Identify areas where funding will be required, and where that funding could come from.
  • Think about who is going be responsible for which roles and tasks.
  • Think about timelines, deadlines and the availability of the team members.

What goes in a protocol?

The specific requirements for a protocol are a little different depending on the type of study that is being planned, and depending on whether the protocol is to be published, registered, or kept as an internal document for the team to work from. 

In general, the team can expect to be addressing variations on some of the following questions: 

  • What is the research question (and hypothesis)?
  • Background: What does existing research say about this topic, what are the strengths, weaknesses and gaps in this research? 
  • Importance: Why does this question need to be asked? Who will be helped by answering this question and how?
  • Methods: Which research method(s) has the team chosen to use? Why?
  • Details:
    • How and where is the team obtaining data/subjects?  What tools will be used to collect data?  
    • How is the team going to decide which data/subjects to include or exclude? 
    • How is the team going to ensure the data is appropriately robust to answer the question? 
    • How is the team going to analyze the data?  What tools will be used to analyze the data?
    • How is the team going to reduce/eliminate bias in collecting and analyzing the data? 
    • What will the team do if they cannot obtain enough high quality data for the analysis?  
  • Resources: What does the team need in order to perform each aspect of this research?
  • Budget: How much will the resources that the team needs cost?
  • Ethics: What ethical concerns are involved in this research, and how will they be addressed?
  • Limitations: What are the strengths and weaknesses of this research?
  • Timeline: When does the team expect to complete the research?  How long is each stage expected to take? 

For specific advice or requirements for your team's research protocol: 

  • Check protocol standards and guidelines.
  • Consult the author requirements for the journal you are considering submitting your protocol to.
  • Read example protocols from the appropriate registries, and check out the registration forms for those registries.
  • Find protocol templates for your research field and/or your study type.  If you cannot find templates, standards, etc. for your study type or research field, look at the above questions and think about how to answer them for your study in as much detail as possible.