Thursday, 19 November 2015

10 Tips for successful research - 2. Be able to state your research question

16 words or less

This may sound completely obvious, but before you undertake any research you should be able to state a single, clear research question that will add to our current knowledge. I challenge our postgrads to state their research question in 16 words or less. A question should begin with a W (who, what, why, when and how – and yes, I know that 'how' doesn't begin with a w…). And it should end with a question mark. 

This is surprisingly hard to do. I ask people to imagine that someone without a background in research has asked them what they are studying. They want to impress this person with how cool and relevant their research is (I try to suggest that there is a potential romantic interest here). So how do you describe your research question in clear simple terms?

If you can state the research question clearly, in simple language, in one sentence, you will be able to work out what data are needed to answer the question, and to identify a suitable study methodology to gather these data. 

But without that initial step in place there is no way of deciding on an appropriate study methodology. 

It's worth spending time trying to phrase the question exactly right. It is the single most important step in your research. When you come up with the exact question you want to ask, make that the title of your research project.

From xkcd

Things that are not research questions

Remember that a research question is a question. I'm interested in patient litigation is not a question, nor is We have data on 120 patients on our deliberate self harm register or I'm planning to do an analysis of patient outcomes using the TILDA dataset.


Write the introduction section to your paper before you finalise the methodology. This should have three sections: what we already know, what we don't know, and what you decided to do. If these are clear in your head – and properly referenced – all is well.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

RStudio – an interface for R for people who hate the R interface

No-one would call the R interface pretty. In fact, it's the sort of interface that strikes terror into the heart of new users. The trouble is that many people find themselves trying to use R because you can do something in R that you cannot do in any other package. These users find that R is just so different to anything else they have used that they can spend days – weeks, even – just trying to figure out how to get their data into the blasted thing.

There have been a few attempts to improve the user experience, though the feeling in the R community seems to be that R does statistics, and that a nice user interface is a low priority. 

I've been experimenting with RStudio recently. As an interface, I've found it much easier to work with than anything I tried previously. Here's what it looks like (click the image to see it full-size):

The bottom left shows you your output. On the top left, you can see that I'm browsing a small table, and on the top right you can see the contents of my R workspace. I like this, because R's ability to have multiple datasets available at once is a strength. Being able to browse them and inspect them is pretty useful. The bottom right shows a very useful pane that you can use to manage files, plots and packages. Clicking a package name opens the help file in the help tab.

Command tips appear as you type a command – no, it doesn't give you dialogues for commands, but the tips are very useful.  

Will this make R as easy as Stata? No, clearly. But it makes it a lot easier. And for that, you may well be grateful.

RStudio is also under pretty active development, and has improved noticeably over the couple of months I've been using it. Worth a try, then.