Five Ways to Ruin a Research Project

Oct. 4, 2020, 7:40 a.m.

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I had a chance to speak with one of my first mentors in emergency medicine, Dr Eddy Lang: the Academic and Clinical Department Head and a Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine, at the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary. He has extensive experience in research at all levels. We spoke about five sure-fire ways to ruin a research project.

1. Not Thinking About Logistics

The top of the list of dangers for Dr Lang was a failure to "line up all the necessary ducks." This can include all types of logistics including patient recruitment, data acquisition, legal issues, ethical issues, and stakeholder engagement.

Important in this logistics is planning for the correct timing, such as using Gantt charts to keep the pieces of the project in sync.

My experience has been that the quote "Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” from Gen. Robert H. Barrow, often rings true. In my personal research career, the projects that our team failed to bring to fruition were not faulty in the sense of bad study design or methodology, but rather, were simply not practical from a logistic perspective. For instance, students in disaster medicine often design beautiful and important methodology for a study, and only find out after some time that obtaining the data is logistically impossible. Thinking early about these logistic hurdles can prevent hours of useless time spent on starting a project that can never be completed.

Think About Logistics
Think About Logistics

2. Not Having a Project Manager

Dr Lang suggests that every research project should have a project manager if possible. However, even when this is not possible, all researchers should think about what it takes to keep the team engaged.

For junior researchers this can mean close communication with both the research supervisor and mentor.

A dedicated project manager is a luxury that many teams must do without. In this case, when forming the team, I like to decide very early upon the project owner. The project owner acts as the "quarterback" for the team. All documentation is forwarded through the project owner. Decisions about next steps such as when to stop data collection, where to submit the article for publication, and how to respond to peer review questions are all coordinated through the project owner. The project owner should keep close communication with the team, and play a central role in team engagement. I have seen many very effective project owners use instant messaging - such as Slack or WhatsApp to check in frequently with their team members to keep them engaged.

3. Not Setting Protected Time

The most common cause cited by researchers as barriers to productivity is time. And Dr Lang agreed that not having protected and dedicated time to devote to a project is often a path to failure. Dr Lang recommends that researchers prioritize dedicated time to the project and "make that time non-negotiable."

Dr Lang states that keeping the momentum is important and cautions that if the project "lapses for more than two or three weeks" that it may be hard to get it going again.

Few things can be more frustrating for a researcher than engaging a team, and then having the project fall apart when some members of the team simply do not have time for the project. In my opinion, the most effective projects have a concrete time schedule set early - in the planning phase. The team members sit together at the project design phase and develop the timeline together. Anyone anticipating they will be unable to meet the time projections voice their concerns during that meeting - not later. In some cases, it becomes the best fit for the team if certain researchers simply state "I don't have time for this project," and excuse themselves from the team.

4. Forgetting About the Team

"It takes a village; the days of the solo research project are gone," said Dr Lang. He echoed the importance of a good team that "fills all the necessary niches." This includes analytics and data collection. Keeping the team engaged is one of his main priorities and this can include newsletters or regular meetings.

For junior researchers, Dr Lang recommends that they have a supervisor and mentor for guidance. Engaging with an existing team may be the best option.

Getting "buy-in" from the remainder of the team can be critical. Dr Lang recommends that researchers start by approaching the operational team and asking them about the gaps and holes that need to be fixed. By starting with the operational problems, it is much easier - "you are asking the question that they want answered."

In many cases, I find it very convenient to think of the team as a dyad between the "content experts" and the "methodology experts." This arrangement can be very fruitful, where the content experts take the responsibility of guiding the research question and the discussion of its importance. Conversely, the methodology experts are responsible for the study design and data analysis.

Research Team
Thinking About the Research Team

5. Choosing an Overly Ambitious Project

Dr Lang counts "feasibility" as the most important ways to predict the success of a project and cautions against overly ambitious projects. "Especially for junior researchers there is this innate passion and curiosity and often the question that is undertaken is just too ambitious." For instance, Dr Lang never recommends that junior researchers, students, or graduate students take on new projects that involve patient recruitment and data collection. Simply because these projects can easily run into time-consuming roadblocks. He suggests that junior researchers consider this type of study only as part of a multicenter trial. Creating a study around pre-existing data is recommended.

Dr Lang recommends that researchers think carefully about the project early on and present the project at meetings or seminars to get the opinion of "seasoned and experienced researchers who can diagnose the obstacles." These panels often encourage researchers to move towards "more of a low-lying fruit." He states that choosing the correct research project is a "strategic decision" and advises researchers to discuss with their colleagues and ensure that their projects address a problem.

Dr Lang also agreed with my previous recommendations to student researchers detailed in another post: researchers should focus on the areas of intersection of their abilities.

"In the end it is better to reach the finish line with a slightly under-ambitious project than to never reach the finish line at all," he summarizes.

My experience as both a researcher and a research advisor has been that the number one killer of research projects is the choice of an overly ambitious project. In my own research, I am continually asking myself "what am I trying to prove?" and then cutting away all parts of the project that are not vitally necessary to prove that point. Often this means trimming the extent of the project. Often it means abandoning the project entirely. My experience supervising students has been similar, and the most common suggestion I give as a research advisor is to cut back on the scope of the project. In the end, it is always better to compromise on scope - not quality.

What Does It Take?

When a project is started, the level of excitement to move forward can be overwhelming. And few things are more exciting to a scientist than the joy of discovery. However, pausing at the outset of the project to think about logistics, project management, the timeline, team structure, and project scope can often save researchers countless hours of time and protect a project from a disastrous and disappointing end.

Do you want to make sure you avoid these five sure-fire ways to ruin a research project? Check out our Five Things to Avoid When Planning a Research Project checklist.

By Jeffrey Franc

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