Projects: The Research Process i)
From Title to ‘Secondary Research’
This is part of a series of lectures I give regularly on the subject of the research process
related to ‘projects’, be they academic research projects or commercial research
commissions. I normally extemporise around the bullet points here in my lectures, but
they are pretty self-explanatory (at least for those who actually attended the lecture –
don’t expect to make too much of it if you weren’t there!).
Generally the key to good research at any level is to get it off to a good start, and this you
absolutely CANNOT possibly do unless and until you have a clear vision of what it is
you are seeking to achieve and how you are going to go about it. A good title and clear
and well thought-out aims and objectives are absolutely critical. Do not rush into writing
in the absence of these. Professional Project Managers spend most of their time initially
trying to understand the nature and dimensions of the problem or question at the heart of
their project before even daring to produce a specification for what it will entail: and in
research work, of course, we are our own Project Managers!
In this element, I intend to take you through the following:
• The essence and shape of research
• Titles that work... and titles that don't.
• The Introduction.
o Explaining the title
o The rationale
o Defining and articulating your aims and objectives (A&O).
• The Literature Review / Secondary Research
o Purpose and role of the Literature Review
o Determining the secondary research / literature review requirement from
o How to 'review' and not just 'recount'.
o The Literature Review output:
Tools of analysis / evaluation
What you need to know - subtracting/minus - what you now
know your Research ‘Gap’ / Requirement
In my experience, most students like to rush through the above to be able to ‘get their
hands dirty’ and get into the primary research. It is as if they are ‘doing a Literature
Review’ only because they are at university and academics require it of them, thinking
that this would never be the case in the commercial sector. This is most erroneous: in
industry this element may be called a ‘Desk Study’, but it serves exactly the same
purpose and comes at exactly the same point in the process and answers the question:
“Before we start ‘re-inventing the wheel’, what exactly is already known about this
subject/issue /question/problem?”. But of course, before that question can be addressed,
there is the (not so very) ‘small’ issue of actually specifying what the project actually IS.
If you get this project articulation ‘wrong’ or it is left unclear: how are you going then to
review the right literature or determine the ‘research gap’ that you will need to fill with
your primary research? Most marks are lost in dissertations, theses, projects and research
generally because insufficient attention is paid to this first critical phase of project
specification: this failure then compounds all the way down the line. The fundamental
problem is that students (and indeed some academics and professionals too, let’s be
honest about it) tend not to see research as a thorough, logical, rational, integrated
process which flowing seamlessly through the work from start to finish.
The Essence of Research
There is a natural ‘flow’ here from one element to the other
• A clear and meaningful title (preferably showing the focus of analysis and
evaluation and the heart of the issue/problem/question...as opposed to something
merely descriptive or enigmatic)
• Research statement articulation with clearly defined aims and objectives
• Academic underpinning (concepts/theories /tools)
• Research: secondary primary
o Data acquisition
Research Projects are effectively a lot about a little – not a little about a lot: they have a
NARROW focus with coverage in DEPTH (as opposed to a wide range with superficial
coverage). So don’t take on too much: a project title that you think is potentially ‘big’
when you start will become gigantic and unmanageable by the time you get half way into
the literature review. The narrower the focus – the generally the better.
Personal choice personal responsibility: you effectively choose the title and aims and
objectives....we will be assessing you on these very things that you have chosen; do you
achieve your own objectives??? If you are not clear what you are doing – how will your
examiners be any the wiser?
• Personal interest must drive this whenever you have freedom of choice as to your
project: if you are not really interested in the subject – how are you going to be
motivated to put in the hours necessary to do it really well?
• Employer interest / support (if on stage/placement): if you play your cards right
and choose something really interesting to your employer you may well get some
time and/or practical help...
• Well travelled topic????
o Much written? maybe boring and difficult to add to sum of knowledge
even if you are happy to find much secondary literature to draw upon: you
may find yourself constantly recounting what has already been said.
Unless you are prepared to analyse and evaluate existing information and
combine it in a new way to address your aims and objectives, you may
well find this sort of topic quite difficult.
o New area? little written to go on, but interesting to research with a
‘clean slate’. This is a quite creative situation in which to be: it can be
unnerving at times to realise there is little in the secondary literature
‘bank’ and that you will have to generate so much yourself via primary
In my opinion, students doing primary research driven projects tend to think that their
colleagues with largely secondary-research based projects are somehow ‘getting away
easy’, but in reality both cases are balanced:
• A student with a significant research gap to be filled by primary research will
have to spend much time in acquiring the data – but at least he can design his
questionnaires/research methodology to get him exactly what he needs.
• A student working principally with pre-existing material has to work effectively
with ‘an unfinished patchwork quilt’, which he has to ‘stitch together from other
people’s writing which was not originally intended to address the specific
topic/issue/problem being addressed by the student. This can be just as exacting
and time-consuming as doing primary research (personally I consider it to be
rather more difficult and time-consuming myself!)
This sets the tone for the entire research: it must encapsulate exactly what your subject is
and do so clearly. If you are going to choose some enigmatic phrase / play on words as
your title (and I wouldn’t actually advise it), your first job will still be to explain to the
reader exactly what you take this to mean. It must have the following attributes:
• Clarity: if is not 100% clear both to you and the reader the confusion will begin
and it can only get worse: it MUST be crystal clear.
• Accuracy: it must not be capable of misinterpretation and it should represent
exactly what you are intending to do: not more and not less.
• Specific and narrow enough to be covered in the word / page limit
• The title will then drive the entire dissertation:
o A&O must map back to title
o Literature Review must map back to the A&O
o Research Gap must arise directly from the reviewing of the literature
o Methodology is driven by the research gap etc.... it all cascades
• Avoid an ‘area of study’ …for working title think instead of:
o A problem to solve OR
o A question to answer OR
o An hypothesis to test (NB. To test. Never set out to ‘prove’ anything).
This will help you as each of the three tend modes tend to lead to outcomes in
which something is resolved whereas a descriptive title just leads to ever deeper
layers of detail resolving very little at all. You will also be able to read material
and determine whether it helps you or not to move forward to an answer / solution
to the problem.... If it doesn’t, it may be about your subject, but it is not relevant
to your particular problem/issue/question and you can simply discard it. Being
able to see the relevance of material is going to be crucial to you – and you will
only be able to establish this if you are 100% clear about your aims and objectives
in the first place.
• You must be able to envisage output and outcomes at the apex/end of your
o Why are you looking at the subject?
So what have we learned?
For whom is the output useful?
How might it be used?
Some title illustrations......
1. An evaluation of the state of UK tour operator website design: Company x – a case
• evaluation …
• state ….
• Tour operator ….
• uk ….
• web design …
• case study.
• Academic subject focus = website design [the state of]
• Operative word = evaluation
• Contexts (gen spec) = UK (geography)
Tour Operator (sector)
Company x (business case)
The above essentially gives the reader the breakdown of what he anticipates from the title
– all readers do this. If you only knew how hard we examiners struggle at the beginning
of a thesis or research article to be able to understand what the writer is actually seeing
as his project and his goal.... If you don’t deliver this you won’t meet reader expectations
(which you have led him to believe are your chosen foci). From the above analysis one
should have a VERY clear idea of the literature to be reviewed. (More on this later)
Deconstruct your own working titles when you have them – even swap them with a
friend and get them to tell you what they think your thesis is going to be about from the
title: if they have a markedly different picture in their minds that suggests you need to
reflect and refine your title! Ultimately, are YOU clear on all the component parts and
which elements are content and context? Are you dealing with them all? If you aren’t
sure, the reader / examiner will not be either and you are already losing marks.
You break down this next couple….
Eg2. An examination of the success of the Alsace Christmas Markets Holiday Guide
Q. Do you see any problems with it? ……….
A.. It is OK, but it ‘hides’ a lot. Whereas other titles may contain more detail such as to
be almost self-explanatory – this title would take rather more explanation in the
• Christmas Markets Holiday Guide
• Academic subject focus = print –based marketing
• Operative words = Examination of success
• Contexts (gen spec) = Alsace (Geography)
Christmas Guide (product/brand)
Perhaps the keyword in the title is ‘success’..... but before you can start to consider the
success of the guide itself, as a writer you would have to consider how ‘success’ may be
measured when one is speaking of a piece of print-based tourism destination marketing....
(which is no small task)! You might, of course, begin with the standard sort of
measurements that often accompany commercial projects: Economy; Efficiency;
Effectiveness; Equity (= ‘fairness’ in terms of public sector projects. You may well find
these 4Es help you..... In most non-commercial cases, you will first have to construct a
valid system for ‘measuring’ your subject. This is where the Literature Review comes in:
you will not necessarily be looking solely at your ‘subject’ (the person, the issue etc) but
also at the means by which you will measure / analyse / evaluate it.
Now this one:-
Eg 3. ‘James Dean: Rebel without a Cause’.
Please don’t ask: ‘Who was James Dean?’, it’ll make me feel too old. (Ans. Young
American film actor who died in a 1960s fast car accident and who had the reputation of
being a bit of ‘a young blade’ (a young rebel?) and happened to star in a film called:
Rebel without a Cause).
Ok, this is ‘clever’ in one way, as you are applying the film title (in which he starred) to
his own life. It is clever in another: you are suggesting that Dean may have been both a
rebel and lacking a understanding of what he was rebelling against and what he was
‘fighting’ for. This does give you something to aim at, but it is going to take some
doing? How does one define ‘rebel’? (The implication is that ‘rebel’ is something bad,
but is it? Parents expect their children to rebel as they learn how to take their own
independence: it is a necessary step, desirable, even. Today’s rebels are often
tomorrow’s establishment – I wonder how many 1968 marchers are now pillars of the
establishment? De Gaulle was very much a rebel as far as the French Army Training
Academy was concerned between the wars – they almost refused to let him pass out from
the Academy because he challenged so directly his teachers’ longstanding strategic and
tactical beliefs and teachings concerning warfare. Yet the rebel became the saviour of the
country and the architect of the new Republic. It would appear that ‘time’ is a significant
feature in all this. So: ‘How do we define rebel?’ will be the first problem. How can you
identify whether he might have had a ‘cause’ (or not) will be another problem.
The point is that the title ‘hides’ a lot that is going to need defining, explaining,
measuring, analysing, evaluating, synthesising and concluding!! In this case a ‘clever’
and ‘enigmatic’ title will need much explanation and elaboration in the introduction. You
can’t escape the need for absolute clarity in the title and aims and objectives.
NB. This is really the introduction to the dissertation rather than to the subject in depth…
so don’t make it read like the Literature Review! Yes you will need to provide some
material on the subject and context, but at this stage only enough to really set the scene
and enable the reader to understand
• WHAT you are doing
• WHY you are doing it
• HOW you are going to attack / approach it in outline (your general approach
rather than an attempt at a full blown methodology – that comes far later)
Essentially this entails:
• Explaining the title in some detail:
o What is envisaged (ie de-construct the title and explain all the component
elements. Remember, ‘sexy’, enigmatic, clever play-on-words type titles
look good but you do need to explain them!)
o What it does not seek to cover
o Providing enough material on each deconstructed element so the reader
will understand the title, but not so much that you begin to cloud the
matter with too much detail.
o Make clear your output / outcome / end point.
• Specifying Aims and Objectives
o NB. Think of archery….aim is what you take at a target…your eventual
destination (if you like, your ultimate objective). Individual objectives are
the staging posts en-route to the target.
o Go for ideally between 4 and 7 objectives:
• Fewer and they are too big and ‘woolly’ and often overlap
• Many more and it becomes too ‘bitty’ / fragmented
o Make sure objectives are:
• Directly related to the title (achieving the objective will move you
nearer to your goal)
• Clear (easy to understand / unambiguous)
• Discrete (separate and NOT overlapping)
• In a logical order (maybe: chronological if relating to a process or
to time; from general to more specific etc.
• Comprehensive (in sum, capable of delivering your title. It is wise
to explain to the reader how this will be achieved.)
• Not lost in a welter of narrative detail (this is one place where a
definitive bullet list leaping out of the page would help)
• Realistically attainable (in terms of time, cost, word limit etc)
• (NB. An objective may have sub-objectives or may be phrased as
an hypothesis. Please note, however, hypotheses are to be tested
[do not under any circumstances set out to prove or disprove them
– this leads to bias and ‘crusading’ and loss of that impartiality
which you must necessarily retain. Test then draw your legitimate
conclusions which may be hypothesis proven correct]
o Explain why are you doing this?
• Your interest (personal / academic / professional)
• Position in the system affording a unique insight
• The importance of the issue – the necessity of finding a solution
o How are you setting about your task in terms of
• Your general approach (outline): you will:-
• Review deconstructed components via the Literature
• Identify a Research Gap (ie the difference between what
your title tells you you need to know and what you can find
out from research of a secondary / desk-based nature)
• Engaging in focused primary research to close the gap etc
• Draw conclusions which will enable you to address the
issue/problem or to resolve the hypothesis at the core of
• The structure of the dissertation and its major component chapters
After this your reader should be 100% clear as to what you are doing / where you are
heading and should not be at all surprised at what he finds when he turns over the next
page. Effectively you should have given the reader the start and finish points and a
skeletal structure that lies between them.
You now need to start by showing the reader what is already known on the subject: ie
you review the existing literature / secondary data:-
LITERATURE REVIEW (LR)
Your title and further explanation thereof in terms of aims and objectives should be
analysed to enable you to identify the specific areas of the academic and professional
literature (secondary research sources) which you should focus upon. You MUST seek to
provide coverage of ALL the deconstructed component elements of the research title as
explained in the A&O. Where coverage of the existing material is not available results in
the definition of a ‘Research Gap’ which you then set about closing with the aid of an
appropriate methodology to underpin your primary research.
Your LR will thus basically:
• Introduce the LR Chapter
o Remind the reader of the foci (deconstructed elements from your A & O)
o Explain the structure and intention of the chapter to cover the above
Move from the general to the specific ideally
o Promise to:
Define the ‘research gap’ at the end of the chapter (based on a
‘subtraction’ of what you have revealed by courtesy of secondary
sources from what one needs to know as defined by the A&O and
Highlight key theories, concepts, models, approaches etc that you
feel are of such value that you will actually USE them
subsequently to inform such aspects as questionnaire design and
the organisation of data presentation and structures for analysis and
• Move systematically through the foci as promised, from general to the specific
o Present only the better / best sources (no point in citing 9 sources which
establish the same simple point)... but you will have to show what makes
them better/best (see below) and you do this by critiquing them NOT
merely by citing them.
o Consider and even challenge and critique the sources you present. Don’t
just cite, attribute and ‘dump’…they may well need explaining and
examining in the following terms:-
What makes these source materials
• Relevant to this particular case?
• The most important?
• The most comprehensive?
• The most suited to the purpose to which you intend to
• The most acknowledged/cited?
• The most reliable?
o Synthesise at the end of each focal point: so what have we learned from
this? Lead out logically into the next element. (NB there is nothing so
annoying to a reader as thinking: “What?! Why this? Why here? Why
now? What does this prove? Why has this just been cited and not
examined in detail? How might this be useful later on?”)
• Provide a synthesis of the literature at the end of the chapter:
o Drawing together all the theories and concepts and your critique thereof,
what are the real ‘gems’ (themes, concepts, models, tools) you have found
and how will you see them being used subsequently. (NB the LR is not
something you get out of the way to start the dissertation proper – it is a
vital element and should inform the rest of your work in any number of
ways which you should make obvious to the reader). Often students
uncover all sorts of really potentially useful information, models,
processes, tools of analysis/evaluation and then singularly FAIL to see
their value or how they might subsequently be used to advantage in
shaping the primary research or in data analysis.
o Identifying the Research Gap / Requirement. What is now known? How
much of the title and A&O still remains uncovered? You MUST define
this in specific terms as your ‘research gap/requirement’. Unless you do
this much of what you have been writing about to this point will have been
in vain and you will not be clear about the focus/foci for your primary
research. Once you have a clearly defined gap, this should lead naturally
into the methodology (which is the selection of the best method of gap-
More of that in the next paper....