Research design

   Main points

Before a researcher starts collecting research data, a research proposal has to be written to design the research process. Regardless of research area, a research proposal should address these 3 main questions:

  • What you want to accomplish
  • Why you want to do it
  • How you want to do it

 In this course we are interested in the third point which is “How you want to do the research”, because the method is related to research data. Therefore in the research proposal(1),(2) we need to specify:  

  • What can already be found in existing scientific literature.
  • A review of existing datasets for possible reuse (this might be less relevant for theoretical research).
  • The research questions and hypotheses resulting from it.
  • How the research data will be collected and analysed (research methods) and how this process is expected to lead to answers to the research questions.
  • (Usually) a research planning.


A research method is a way to collect data. During this process the researcher uses tools. The preferred method(s) depend(s) on:

  • The research questions.
  • The latest scientific knowledge.
  • Area of research traditions. 

A researcher hardly ever uses one single research method. The method may vary for each phase. A researcher may prefer to use questionnaires first for an overview of the subject and  then continue with interviews to gather more information about it.  

The table below shows a number of simple examples of frequent research methods, combined with the tool used to carry out the research and the data documentation that may be used during this phase.

A code book(3) is a sort of legend with the data files. It can be used to find data file variables and the meaning of the codes used. The diary and lab journal are used to document the data collection process.

Research method Tool Data documentation
Survey Questionnaires Codebook
Case study Combination of interviews and observations Diary
Experimental research in a laboratory Measurement or observation Lab journal


Nowadays, funders often require a data management plan to be included in the research proposal, either as a data section or as an annex to the research proposal. Read more about it in the data management planning section.  


Below are three Research Proposals. How much attention do these proposals pay to collecting and analysing research data? Which aspects are dealt with and which are neglected? 

Tim Riswick, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, wrote the research proposal(5) titled:  

'Between Affection and Hostility: Sameness and Difference in the Mortality Chances of Brothers and Sisters in Taiwan and the Netherlands, 1860-1940'

 A project research proposal(6) by the University of Potsdam, titled:

'Differentiated linguistic and genetic exploration of language impairments and disorders with a biolinguistic approach to language faculty and language design (UG)'.

The research proposal by Radan Šuba(7), Delft University of Technology, titled: 

'Content of variable-scale maps'.  

  An in-depth look 

Courses Research Design are often part of the master student's curriculum and PhD programmes. A few examples: 

Would you like to know more about the subject? Think of a research discipline and look for sources of information with such keywords as 'Experimental Design', 'Research Design' and 'Research Methods' in their titles. 

Below are two books as an example. The first focuses on social sciences; the second on life sciences. 

  • Creswell, J.W. (2013). Research Design. Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. SAGE Publishers. 
  • Ruxton, G.D. (2010). Experimental design for the life sciences. Oxford University Press. 


  Sources and additional reading

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  1. University of Exeter. Guide to writing a PhD proposal. Retrieved from
  2. Hanzehogeschool Groningen. (2013). The research proposal. Retrieved from proposal#
  3. Lavrakas, P.J. (2008). Encyclopedia of Survey Research Methods. Codebook [encyclopedia entry]. Retrieved from
  4. RUG. GSMS courses. Course: study design in clinical epidemiology. Retrieved from
  5. Riswick, T. (2013). Extended PhD-proposal for the Posthumus Institute. Retrieved February 20, 2014 from
  6. Universiteit van Potsdam. (2013). Differentiated linguistic and genetic exploration of language  impairments and disorders with a biolinguistic approach to language faculty and language design (UG). Retrieved from
  7. Šuba, R. (2013). Content of Variable-scale Maps. PhD Research Proposal. Retrieved from
  8. Studiegidsen 2013-2014 Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. Vak: Research Methodology. Retrieved from
  9. TU Delft Graduate School. Vak: R1.A1 Research Design. Retrieved from