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How to Write a Research Proposal

For the Neuroinformatics Research course assignments, you are to write a research proposal of about 1000 words, maximum 2 type-written pages, single-spaced.


The idea behind this exercise is i) learn to write a research proposal ii) identify novel research areas and scientific issues that more research could help to clarify.
Writing the proposal will then help you achieve three important objectives:

  1. to expand your knowledge of neuroinformatics and computational neuroscience by focusing on areas that are of particular interest to you,
  2. to further develop your skills as a critical reader of neuroscience and informatics research literature, and
  3. to develop your scientific writing skills.


General Requirements

In this research proposal, you are asked to demonstrate your ability to critically review the chosen research area and then propose experiments/ modelling that would help to address a i) novel, ii) feasible and iii) interesting issues in Neuroinformatics. Choose two of the topics presented and discussed in the previous month. You will find that there are a great number of potential topics you could pick. The best way would be to take something that interests you. The best way to look at this is imagine what would you like to work on if you are to work with one of the lecturer as a primary supervisor. You have to balance your scientific interest with scientific interests of your supervisor and deside on a general direction. You should then try to narrow the topic. You need not deal with the entire topic area (e.g., all of experimental techniques, all programming language, all of perception etc), but choose smaller, more manageable topic (e.g., perception of living things and spatial attention; the function of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in visual memory task etc). If you define your topic too generally there will simply be too much relevant research, making it very difficult to decide on experimental procedure/plan of work and review the most relevant papers.

Required sections of the proposal

The proposal must contain the following sections: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Background, Methods, Predicted Results, Milestones, References.

  • Title and Abstract: you have to raise interest in your proposal. Some people read ONLY title and abstract. If they are boring or incomprehensible you will not succeed in creating any more interest for your proposal. Write one or two paragraphs that briefly describes (i) WHAT the proposal is about (the area of interest, the research question that will be addressed in the proposal), (ii) HOW you aim to conduct the research (brief methodology), and (iii) WHY it is an interesting research to do.
  • Introduction/Background: This section should describe the research area and findings from previous studies. Write in a goal-directed manner. You will eventually be proposing some experiment/models, therefore, the literature review should be designed so that it discusses an issue or question that needs to be addressed in that area and provides a rationale for your proposed study. Moreover, you should structure your Introduction so that the motivation for your proposal becomes clear. To achieve that you should begin with a relatively big issue and then focus down to the specific issue you are interested in, highlighting the aspects of previous research (for example, some methodological flaw in previous approaches or a novel finding opening a new field) that your proposal will address. Summarise the most important and relevant results/expertise from your own previous research/studies. You should try to demonstrate that you are (i) familiar with the field of research and (ii) able to conduct the research in this field. By the end of the Introduction the reader should have a very good idea of what the central issue of your proposal will be. Your Introduction should reference at least three original research articles (see the section about references).
  • Goal/Aims/Method: Now you are actually talking about what you are proposing. Be sure that this follows naturally from the introduction in which you should have set up and highlighted some ritical issue that needs to be resolved. State clearly a single research goal and a few (usually three) research aims. What you should do now is to tell the reader how you would resolve this issue. The Method section should describe the technique for the experiments/models, what equipment will be used, and (briefly) the procedure that will be followed. You should be specific about the variables that will be measures in the experiment and what will be the approach to data analyses.
  • Predicted Results/Milestones: This section should describe the results you expect from your proposed experiments/modelling. You suppose to discuss your prediction and what happen if the results would turn out differently. Would there be any alternative interpretations? Include your research schedule (if you are aiming for a PhD proposal, then your schedule willt be year 1, year 2, year 3, if you are aiming for a Master project then your schedule is month1, month2, month3). Be realistic, you have to include the amount of work that a single person can do in a given time and you have to aim for the results for 2 to 4 research papers (for PhD thesis). It is important to show that that your idea could be transformed into a small number of answerable questions and you are able to extent your ideas providing future hypotheses.
  • References: You must have at least 3 primary sources from the last two years, but you are welcome to have more.

There is no upper limit for the number of references and they can be listed on a separate page.


  1. Cite the main findings while presenting information, do not just give a reference.
  2. Cite only sources that are (i) relevant and that (2) you have read. A false citation might be considered as a scientific fraud.
  3. Do not create a bibliography! I.e., do not cite the references that were consulted but that are not directly relevant to the proposal.



There are five equally important issues: (i) background knowledge and maturity, (ii) novelty of the idea, (iii) methodology, (iv) feasibility or how realistic is the project, (v) style and writing. For each of the following, you will be given a 1-10 score, where 1 is very poor, and 10 is perfect. Each proposal is assessed by two reviewer, usually it is the lecture whose topic you discuss and one of the course organisers. Each person give you a mark of of 50 points. Thus, your final mark on the proposal (out of 100) will be calculated as you total score on the five above issues.

Questions to ask while evaluating your own (or someone else) proposal :

  • Overall, was the information presented clearly and goal driven or in a very scattered manner with no apparent direction?
  • Was the argument obvious throughout all the sections of the proposal ?
  • Was the choice of citations appropriate with respect to the discussed argument ?
  • Did you describe and explain all the relevant aspects of previous research?
  • Did you use the introduction to motivate reasonable predictions about the potential outcome(s) of the proposed experiment/modelling?
  • Did you structure the Method section clearly?
  • Will the experiment/model, as proposed, be appropriate to deal with the argument suggested in the introduction?
  • Are your experiments well designed? Do you see any obvious design flaws?
  • How clever are the suggested experiments? That is, did you simply suggest to look at some existing issue as a function of some other variable with no apparent motivation, or did the experiment
  • represent a real attempt to either confirm or deny some theory, or discriminate between existing views or theories?
  • Are there any alternatives to experimental design? What is the justification of your choice?
  • Is predicted outcome of the experiments/models realistic? What are the alternatives?
  • Can one person (you) conduct suggested amount of work?
  • And finally: is this project exciting?

(by Irina Erchova, using information from Matthias Niemeier's and DAAD web sites)

A list of recommended reading to improve your writing skills

  • The "Next wave" section in Science
  • Douglas Curran-Everett, The Thrill of the Paper, the Agony of the Review: Part One 10 September 1999; Part Two 24 September 1999
  • Wolfgang Adamczak, How to write a Successful Proposal 2 February, 2001
  • Lesley McKarney Peer-Review Techniques for Novices 20 April 2001
  • Phil Dee: Yours Transferably
  • Your first "First Author" Paper: Part One 15 February 2002; Part Two 15 March 2002
  • How to get around to writing, 21 march 2003



  1. Mary-Claire van Leunen (1992) A Handbook for Scholars, Oxford Univ Pr (T); 2nd
  2. Robert A Day (1992) Scientific English: a guide for Scientists and other Professionals Oryx Press
  3. Robert A Day (1998) How to write and publish a scientific paper, Oryx Press; 5th
  4. Thomas A. Lang, Michelle Secic (1997) How to report Statistics in Medicine Annotated Guidelines for Authors Editors and Reviewers, American College of Physicians
  5. Robert L. Iles, Debra Volkland (1997) Guidebook to better medical Writing, Iles Pubns
  6. Cheryl Carter New, James Aaron Quick (2003) How to Write a Grant Proposal (Wiley Nonprofit Law, Finance and Management Series), Wiley; Bk&CD-Rom