Research Tips

Writing your way to abstract acceptance

Having the opportunity to present your research at a scientific conference is a big deal! Not only does it look good to have a conference proceeding to add to your CV but dissemination of your findings to your colleagues can open many doors for future projects and collaborations.

The first hurdle is to get past the scientific committee, who are the gatekeepers on deciding whether or not your abstract is accepted for the conference. Their perspective on abstract acceptance depends on several factors. These factors include whether your abstract contribute to the body of scientific knowledge, have educational value for the intended audience and add value to the conference program/themes. Look at it this way, your abstract should sell/pitch your research findings to the gatekeepers, who if convinced, will give you the key to the conference.

So, here are some tips for writing a good abstract.

  1. Follow the “author instructions” or “abstract template” found on the conference website. There is nothing more annoying to conference organisers than those authors who do not use the correct font, stick to word limit, or forget to add the key words as requested.
  2. List all authors and affiliations. Make sure all authors agree on the order listed as this cannot be easily changed once submitted.
  3. Start with a statement that describes your research question, followed by a description of the research method and design, the major findings, and the conclusions reached.
  4. Stick to concise language that flesh out the main points/findings of your research. Avoid tangential or generalised statements that do not add value to your research.
  5. Ensure you answer the aims of your research in the abstract conclusion.
  6. Check your spelling and grammar prior to submission.
  7. Create an attractive title that describes and promote your research

Remember, the scientific committee is not the only hurdle your abstract faces. Even after abstract acceptance, you still have to face the audience hurdle! Nobody wants to present to an empty room or be the loner next to the poster that draws zero attention. Keep the delegate audience in mind during abstract writing because for many delegates who have never heard of you, the conference abstract is their only window to your work and the only factor in determining their attendance of your presentation.

For more information, read the AJOPS editorial by Dr Darrell Perkins on “Guidelines and tips for getting your abstract accepted: ASPS PSC”.

The Holy Grail of grant writing

The shear mention of “grant writing” is enough to elicit exasperated grunts from many researchers. Sadly, grant writing a necessary evil for most researchers as money is required to make your research happen. Looking at it positively, writing a research grant application can help frame your research question and the more practice you have, the better the writer you become (notwithstanding more grey hair to add to the mix!). Grant funding is the Holy Grail for researchers so let’s get started with the following tips to maximise your chances of success.

1.Find the right grant for your needs.

There are different types of grants for different needs. For example, there are grants for the purpose of funding research equipment or staff that are separate to general research project funding. Look at the priorities of the funding body and ensure your research matches them. These funding priorities may be fixed for the purpose of a particular grant or they may change each time the grant is open for applications. Early career researchers (less than 5 years post PhD) may find that there are particular grants targeting their level of research experience while more experienced researchers may battle it out for more lucrative higher value grants.

2.When is the grant open for application?

Funding bodies advertise when grants are open and closed for applications. You may find this information on the funding body website. Universities and health departments often have dedicated pages listing which grants are open for applications. It can be helpful to sign up to email alerts from funding bodies to remind you when to start preparing an application or to be alerted of upcoming due dates. Due dates are usually very strict with funding bodies and it’s not up for negotiation. Grant applications can take a lot of preparation so allow plenty of time for the process.

3.Read the instructions.

This may seem obvious but you will be surprised at the number of applicants who don’t follow the guidelines provided by the funding body. If provided, use the funding body’s template for your application rather than create your own document. Stick to the word limit and don’t waffle just to fill space.

4.Do some background research on the funding body.

It is useful to gather information about the funding body so you can write your application to align with their vision. This is particularly important when you are applying to a charitable or a philanthropic organisation that may be interested in certain aspects of disease or patient experience.

5.Read previous successful applications and talk to colleagues who have had funding success.

Sometimes, funding bodies make available a summary or abstract of previous successful applications. It is very helpful to review these or if not available, try and connect with colleagues who have been successful in grant applications. Pick their brains and ask for tips that may help in getting your research funded.

6.Pitch your research

Be concise and clear in your research proposal so your reviewer can understand and be captivated by your research idea. You want the reviewer to find your research idea interesting, feasible and worthy of funding. Despite funding bodies aiming to match reviewers’ expertise with your research topic, it is possible that your reviewer may not be familiar with the terms and acronyms used in your niche field. It is always useful to ask colleagues outside of your niche field to read over your grant application and give feedback.

7.Consider your track record.

Not only do you have to pitch your idea as a researcher but you also have to pitch the fact that you and your team are capable of making the research happen and carrying it to fruition. Funding bodies want to see your research make an impact in various areas such as making change to health processes, outcomes, protocols, and costs. It is difficult for early career researchers to compete with experienced researchers with impressive track records in the same funding rounds, however, teamwork is the key. If you think your track record is a bit light, consider collaborating with colleagues who have more research experience, so that reviewers can score your application on your team’s track record rather than just your own.

8.Give a realistic budget.

If you don’t want to run out of funds midway through your research project, plan your budget carefully. Be realistic but not ridiculous in your request so reviewers take your research seriously. You need to be able to justify each and every item in your budget to your reviewer. Again, read the instructions carefully because there may be certain conditions depending on the funding body. For example, some grants do not permit equipment or salaries to be added to be budget.  If permitted, salaries may need to include öncosts. These on-costs may be 20% extra to cover things like superannuation and leave entitlements for research assistants.

9.Edit and check your work.

It’s very annoying to read grant applications that have spelling and typographical errors. Proof read your application before submission.

Grant success is hard to come by and it can take many failed attempts before you achieve the Holy Grail of funding. Prepare meticulously, have a formidable team, revise and take on the feedback. This will no doubt set you up to be in the best position possible for grant success.

For further information, please look at this helpful webinar series on NHMRC grant writing tips.

A simple guide to qualitative research

Qualitative research has suffered from an image problem in the research world for a long time with researchers and reviewers often questioning the methods of, and outcomes produced. However, times have changed and are continuing to change, with researchers and readers coming to the realisation that qualitative research provides answers to questions that cannot be answered by quantitative means. Put simply, numbers and statistics don’t always tell the story of a research problem or solution. Qualitative research, when used appropriately, gives insight and depth to participants’ experiences, perceptions, and motivations behind a behaviour.

Like all research, qualitative research should be performed with a specific aim or research question in mind. For example, what are the factors that influences women’s choice of breast reconstruction after mastectomy? How does social media affect patient selection of plastic surgeon for aesthetic surgery? Do body image perceptions of burns survivors change over time?

A variety of qualitative research approaches may be chosen to answer the research question. They include:

  • Narrative Research – Individual stories are explored to understand how participants perceive and make sense of their experiences.
  • Phenomenological Research – Researchers investigate a phenomenon or event by describing and interpreting participants’ lived experiences.
  • Grounded Theory Research – Researchers collect data on a topic of interest and develop theories in the context of the experience/phenomena being studied.
  • Ethnography – Researchers immerse themselves in groups or organisations to understand their shared cultures.

 

Data collection may consist of one or more of the below methods:

  • Observations – A detailed record of what the researcher has seen, heard or encountered.
  • Interviews – One-on-one conversations between the researcher and participant. These may be structured, semi-structured, or unstructured depending on the aim of the study.
  • Focus groups – Usually these are small groups led by the researcher asking questions and generating discussion about a topic of interest.
  • Surveys – Distribution of questionnaires which may include open and closed-ended questions.
  • Secondary research – Collection of existing data in the form of texts, images, audio or video recordings.

 

Interviews and focus-group conversations are recorded and carefully transcribed prior to analysis. The researcher may categorise and describe common words, phrases, and ideas found in their data (Content Analysis) or they may choose to identify and interpret patterns and themes (Thematic analysis).

Care needs to be taken when performing or reviewing qualitative research, as research bias may be present. These biases include the Hawthorne effect (when people behave differently because they know they are being observed), recall bias and observer bias. In light of these issues, an awareness and identification of these potential problems at planning and analysis, can help researchers and reviewers qualify the outcomes.

References:

Bhandari, P. (2022, November 24). What Is Qualitative Research? | Methods & Examples. Scribbr. https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/qualitative-research/

All about systematic reviews

Systematic reviews are notoriously labour-intensive, involving countless hours of reading and computer work, following strictly-defined methods to find, select, process and interpret all previous studies to answer a single research question. So why do them? Simply, because they provide high quality evidence to research questions. Systematic reviews can be replicated and updated as more research become available over time.

Here are some basic tips for conducting a systematic review:

1.Start with a specific research question.

The question should be clear and identify the Population, Intervention, Comparison and Outcome (PICO) elements of your systematic review. Check if other systematic reviews have been performed or are currently being performed for the same question. You may wish to start with a unique question or update a previous review.

2.Set aside time and gather your team.

Experienced, full-time researchers usually allow 6 or more months to complete a systematic review. You will need a team of at least 3 people, familiar with the topic area and methodology, to conduct a systematic review. It helps to have a written research protocol, with a formal methodology, that is understood and agreed upon by your team before you start. It is highly recommended that you register your systematic review online in a Trial Registry.

3.Identify relevant articles

The idea is to identify ALL articles that may answer your research question. Firstly, the titles and abstracts are screened independently with respect to your pre-determined inclusion and exclusion criteria, then the full-texts are downloaded and screened further. This process of screening is performed by at least 2 people on your research team, with the third person to resolve any disagreements.

You will need access to electronic databases such as Medline and PubMed, as well as print libraries. Hospitals, Universities and/or RACS membership can provide access to these databases. You will also need referencing software such as Endnote to manage all the identified articles.

Manual bibliography searches are also performed of included articles or reviews and authors and experts may be contacted to identify other articles for inclusion.

At each step of screening, a record is kept of which articles are included or excluded. When the selection process is complete, a PRISMA flow diagram may be produced for inclusion in the systematic review manuscript.

4.Carefully extract data and perform quality assessment of included studies.

Data extraction includes a tabulated summary of study and patient characteristics and outcomes. Once the data has been extracted, cross-checking and data cleaning are performed to ensure accuracy. A feature of systematic reviews is an evaluation of the quality of the studies included. There are specific tools that you can use for this purpose depending on the study design. These include the Cochrane tool for Randomised Controlled Trials and the National Institute of Health tool for observational and cross-sectional studies. The purpose of the quality assessment is to evaluate the possibility of bias and determine the study’s internal validity strength.

Similar to the study selection, two researchers independently assess the studies for quality with a third researcher resolving any disagreements.

5.Interpret the data

Data is usually described qualitatively and the combined results of various studies may be entered into a meta-analyses to harness a combined effect. This may be helpful when answering questions that have not been studied previously, increase precision, as well as to resolve controversies from conflicting results from previous studies. However, it is important to note any differences in study design and bias across the studies included in the meta-analyses. Large variations between studies or lack of studies, may rule out a meta-analyses.

6.Publish and disseminate your findings.

Once your report is written, you can publish it in a systematic review database, such as the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, and/or in a peer-reviewed journal.

 

References:

Bhandari, P. (2022, November 24). What Is Qualitative Research? | Methods & Examples. Scribbr. https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/qualitative-research/

Navigating the minefield of statistical analyses

Statistical analyses can be overwhelming for many early career and even, experienced researchers. It can be mind-boggling getting your head around which tests to use and how to interpret them. Fear not, let us try to tackle basic principles of statistical analysis, following the steps proposed by Guetterman (2019).

1. Formulate your research question/hypothesis.

Your hypothesis should be specific and give the reader an idea of the main variables involved. It may be a null hypothesis or a hypothesis about relationships between variables.

2. Choose an appropriate statistic test.

Based on your answer to step 1, choose an appropriate statistical test. Table 1 (below) will guide you in this process.

3. Determine sample size based on a power analysis

A power analysis is a calculation that helps you determine a minimum sample size for your study. Having enough statistical power is necessary to draw accurate conclusions about your study population. Power is usually set at 80% and significance level (alpha) at 5%. This means that 80 out of 100 statistical tests will detect the same effect in different studies of your population, with a maximum risk of hypothesis rejection at 5%. There are free online sample size calculators for researchers to use.

4. Prepare data for analysis

Clean and cross-check the data. Comb through the descriptive statistics. Look for outliers and missing data and check if there are any patterns. Decide how you will manage outliers and missing data.

5. Start the analysis with descriptive statistics

Look for trends and errors by reviewing frequencies, minimums and maximums.

6. Check assumptions of statistical tests

Check for normal distribution of data for parametric statistics e.g. t tests, ANOVAs, correlations and regressions.

7. Run the analysis

Use statistical software such as SPSS to provide key test statistics.eg. p values, confidence intervals, effect size.

8. Examine how well the statistical model fits

For t-tests, ANOVAS, correlation and regression, examine an overall test of significance. Refer to Table 1 column; “How to interpret”. If p> 0.05 or confidence interval crossed 0, you can conclude there is no significant difference between groups. If there is a statistical significance, you may need to perform further tests to interpret the magnitude or direction of the result.

9. Report the results of the statistical analysis

Start with the descriptive statistics and note whether assumptions for tests were met. In the results, give the statistic itself, e.g. a F statistic, the measure of significance (p value or confidence interval), the effect size and a brief written interpretation of the statistical test. For example, that an intervention was not significantly different from control or that it was associated with improvements that was statistically significant.

10. Evaluate threats to statistical conclusion validity

Threats such as low statistical power, repeated tests of same data, measurement error, and/or protocol deviation should be anticipated and minimised where possible, and those that cannot be avoided or arise after data collection and analysis such as non-normal distribution and outliers, should be made transparent in the discussion of the study’s limitations.

Many hospitals, universities and research institutions have statisticians available to help calculate your sample size, formulate, perform and help interpret your study’s results. They are a most valuable resource and will no doubt help you navigate the minefield of research statistics.

References:

https://www.scribbr.com/statistics/statistical-power/

Guetterman TC. Fam Med Com Health 2019; 7.

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