Getting a research project up and running: A guide for practitioners

This guide, in 'question-and-answer' form, is aimed at early career practitioners but should be useful for anyone who is inexperienced in getting projects off the ground. New academics may also find the guide of interest although it is slanted to those in practice in library and information services (LIS). While there is an emphasis on ways to secure external funding, the guide provides advice which is relevant also for preparation of proposals for submission internally.

Question 1: I have a really good idea for a project but I don't know how to begin. What should I do to get started?

Firstly, you need to be really clear about what you want to gain from the project so take some time to think about and write down your ideas on areas such as:

  • aims of the project - what are you trying to achieve eg better use of resources; improved service to undergraduates;
  • strategic significance - how would the project help your unit or organisation achieve its strategic goals as outlined in forward planning documents or statement of aims of the organisation;
  • outputs sought eg a set of statistics to give you better understanding of how your library is performing in relation to other similar agencies; an overview of the preferences for services in your user community.
  • processes you think might be appropriate such as a survey; a literature/web search, or advice from an expert in the topic;
  • skills and knowledge which might be needed especially where these are additional to your own skills;
  • timing of the project in relation to the normal annual cycle in the organisation (eg school holidays, financial year);
  • maintaining privacy of participants and organising ethics committee clearance if relevant.

What you produce at this stage will probably change a lot as you go through planning the project and reviewing what you have written down. Nonetheless the act of expressing your intention in writing is very helpful for getting things clear in your head -and for preparing you to talk to others about what you want to do.

Question 2: Who else should get involved?

Early in the process you need to talk to your workplace supervisor as keeping that person in the loop right through the project is critical. You will need their support, even if it's only moral support, especially if you get into contacting people inside or outside the library. Your supervisor's support will also be essential if you have to get ethics clearance for the project - an increasingly common requirement for any project involving humans (or animals for that matter) in research projects. But probably the biggest potential help is the connections your supervisor can make for you either directly or through someone higher up in the organisation. You will have your own networks in ALIA but your supervisor may be able to open up other arenas you can't access.

Having spoken to your boss - and hopefully been given the green light - you need to start refining your ideas and accommodating the boss' perspective on what would be valuable for the library. So revise your draft notes and then send to your supervisor with a memo outlining your understanding of what was agreed between you as to how you will be proceeding. And remember, keep your boss informed on any significant developments or changes as you work through the project.

Question 3: How do I find out if anyone else has thought of this idea?

You should do a thorough search of the literature and the web to find relevant material and to find out about who is doing similar work in your area of interest. Tap into the networks to make sure you are not about to re-invent the proverbial wheel or move solo on a project that others would be interested in - or are actually carrying out. It is crucial that you can be confident when speaking about the project that it is not repeating work and that it has unique features which justify funding.

Question 4: How detailed does my project outline need to be before I start exploring funding possibilities?

Before you start exploring possibilities for funding, you should have:

  • a reasonable draft outline of the project including aims, methods/processes, outcomes, timeframe;
  • a good understanding of your topic both in terms of the subject matter and other people interested in this area;
  • a ball-park idea of the scale of resources needed - cash and in-kind. Is it a $1000 or $100 000 project? Solo effort, small team or cast of thousands?

Question 5: Speaking of dollars... how do I find a source of funding?

A quick search on the Internet will uncover many lists of sources of funding. The challenge is to find which are the most likely to bring you success in your quest for funds. The main national sources of these competitive funds are the Australian Research Council and the National Health & Medical Research Council. These funds may be accessed by libraries through partnerships with universities and there are many examples of collaborations between universities and libraries being funded through these bodies.

Question 6: There are so many funding sources available - where should I start?

It may help you to think of funding sources in a 'hierarchy' from local/specialised up to international/generalised. If you are a relatively inexperienced researcher your best potential for success is at local or state level since with each level you go up the situation gets more complex and competitive. Sure, you can write to Bill and Melinda Gates, but your chances are slight, as this foundation tends to operate on a global level and in direct negotiation with national governments. Something similar is true in the Australian context also. If you are a new researcher (say in the university sector), you are unlikely to be successful if your first application is pitched to the Australian Research Council (ARC) as the ARC looks for track record. Having an experienced researcher in your team would be a definite plus but it's still a long shot.

So the best way to approach the selection of a place to apply for funds is to begin by looking within the library and cultural institutions sector at the different sources of funding. You should concentrate on the 'lower' levels before moving 'up' to more competitive arenas. In other words start locally before going national or global. The table below shows examples of sources within a 'hierarchy' to help you navigate your way through.

Examples of types of sources of funding /in-kind support

Local Regional/State National


LIS-specific employer; or 'friends' group state library; regional resource-sharing networks eg Unison; QLOC NLA community heritage grants; national networks such as PLA; CAUL; CASL Gates Library Fund; Carnegie Foundation; Bertelsmann Foundation
General, inclusing government; corporate; philanthropic Service clubs such as Rotary; local council; local business Law Foundation of NSW; Queensland Community Foundation; Lotteries Commission of WA; NSW Cultural Grants Program, ARC; Commonwealth Bank; Telstra; Nat. Office for the Information Economy; Myer Fnd; Dept of Comm. Information Technology and the Arts W.K.Kellogg Foundation; British American Tobacco; BHP-Billiton

Not all of the entities above are funding bodies as such or invite submissions for projects but nonetheless they can be a source of funding. CAUL is a good example of a body that does not take submissions from outside the membership but it sometimes responds to project ideas that are introduced to the group by a member of the network and it is clear that collaborative action will benefit everyone.

Question 7: How do I select a funding source which is most likely to be successful?

To work out where you are most likely to be successful with an application you need to do your homework and learn about these organisations and how they work. Philanthropy Australia also lists some useful references along with tools and resources

No organisation gives funds without there being some strings attached even if this is only public acknowledgement of the grant. So you need to be sure both what the organisation or entity is about - and what the conditions might be if you were to be funded. And check whether or not you will be able to use the results of your project to write up the work (with acknowledgment to the funding body).

No organisation gives funds without there being some strings attached even if this is only public acknowledgement of the grant. So you need to be sure both what the organisation or entity is about - and what the conditions might be if you were to be funded. And check whether or not you will be able to use the results of your project to write up the work (with acknowledgment to the funding body).

The first area to consider when you are looking at a potential source of funds is the scope of what will be funded - any geographical limitations, special target groups such as youth, topics or types of project of interest.

Becoming familiar with the different organisations, their philosophy and so on is not an easy task even with ease of access to information on the web. There will be nuances and priorities that may not be evident from printed material so a phone call to the sponsor can be a useful follow-up to your reading of brochures, annual report, the forms and guides for applicants and so on. Talking to successful applicants can help too - you may be able to access a list of previously funded projects which could provide advice direct from someone with experience of the organisation in question.

The stark reality is that accessing project funds is not simply a matter of shaking the money tree. You need to be able to show the benefits of your project to a potential sponsor and not just the benefits that will accrue to you and your organisation from the work. You have to clearly understand where the funding body is coming from, and what their goals are, keeping in mind that there are very many more seeking funds than there are funds made available. The most productive approach is likely to be focusing your energy on getting funds from local sources at state or regional level.

Don't overlook the possibility of being funded from within your own organisation. With the support of your supervisor you could reasonably expect to get in-kind support such as access to facilities, help from other staff, phone, postage and the like. And an allocation of dollars, no matter how small the amount, is very important if you are to go outside for funds. Funding authorities do not look kindly on applications where the organisation is not putting even a small amount of cash up-front for a project as it suggests the organisation does not strongly support the project. The in-kind contribution can be costed in a submission but those dollars also need to be identifiable in the contribution of the organisation.

In summary, you need to take time to analyse the organisations you locate and look for a good match between what you want to achieve and the goals of the potential sponsor. But do not be daunted - countless projects are funded each year so yours can be one of those if you work carefully through the options and choose the right places to apply.

Question 8: I believe my project is relevant to more than my own library. How can I find partners to work with me?

Before you start looking for partners you should have an idea of what you are seeking from the partner. Is it equal partnership in all aspects of the work, or is it about getting access to resources of a given agency, or is it about bringing expertise on board? Or is it simply because what you are doing makes sense only if it's done in partnership eg piloting a way to refer reference questions between libraries.

The most obvious place to look is among your professional peers especially in your ALIA networks. Look at the list of Groups on the ALIA website and get in touch with any Groups that look promising to see if there is anyone out there interested in your project. Your supervisor will have some suggestions and may refer you to potential partners.

Another source of partners is the university sector. In recent years the universities have begun to focus on building up the amount of work they do with industry, business, community and the professions. This reflects a new emphasis in national research funding schemes and a world trend to bring the academy and workplace into research collaboration on 'real world' problems. You should contact your local universities and explore the possibilities. Each university has a well-developed web site or you could contact the unit generally called the 'Research Office' or similar. There may also be a one-stop-shop and telephone number for initial contact with the university. Or you could simply contact the LIS department if there is one, to start the ball rolling, keeping in mind that there may be expertise in many other places in the institution.

One of the areas you might like to explore with the universities is whether they have seed grants available for university/industry projects. These are usually accessible to academic and non-academic partnerships working on what might in time become a larger project suitable for national funding. The seed funds are intended to kick start the research although the non-university partner usually needs to contribute some cash as well as give in-kind support.

Do not restrict yourself to libraries or librarians - you might find, say, a public relations expert, a creative writer, a copyright expert, or a web designer to be valuable members of your project team. Partnerships at organisational level can be very powerful, for example, a combination of a government department, a council library service and a local voluntary agency seeking to introduce innovative services for the disabled would be an attractive proposition for a funding authority.

In summary, be clear on what you want to gain from having partners; it needs to be more than a warm glow. If you are clear on what the project is about and what it is you want from a partner you are very likely to get an enthusiastic response from anyone who sees a benefit for them or their organisation in the proposed project.

Question 9: Could I do this project as part of a university course?

Most university courses include a project component towards the end of the program. So, if your project is small scale this would be a possibility as part of a coursework program such as a master in library and information science or master of business administration. Check out the program structures and talk to the academic coordinator for the potential. You are likely to have to pay fees for the program as the majority of coursework postgraduate programs are now in this category. Scholarships may be available or your employer might pay the fees.

Another strategy is to seek enrolment in a postgraduate research degree program - a master-by-thesis or doctoral program. These programs require a strong academic background and application usually requires submission of a proposal when applying on the work to be undertaken. Each student is allocated a team of supervisors, one of whom can be a suitably qualified person from a student's workplace where appropriate to the project.

Australian resident students in research degrees can apply for a place in the Commonwealth Research Training Scheme so they do not have to pay fees apart from what are usually called 'service fees' paid by students whether they are undergraduate or postgraduate. In addition full-time research students are eligible for Commonwealth or university-funded stipends although these are very competitive. Students on government stipends are allowed to do a small amount of part-time work to supplement the stipend income. A small number of scholarships and grants which may be used to subsidise studies are available specifically for library and information studies, including grants from the National Library of Australia and ALIA.

You should inquire directly also at the university of your choice for scholarships provided by that individual university as most have at least some scholarships available.

In brief, it is possible to undertake a project as part of university studies with many precedents of individuals focusing on work-based research to meet university course requirements.

Question 10: Where can I find help with putting my submission together?

There are many printed guides available to help you with the process of putting a submission together. Check library catalogues to locate these. Philanthropy Australia lists a number of useful publications (as well as the Directory it publishes).

These give examples of the headings to use, budget items to cover and other practical advice. These guides are useful in the early stages but when it comes time to submit your project outline to a funding body, whether it's in your own organisation or outside, there is likely to be a set format for submissions including application forms. So before you begin the task of drafting the document you will be submitting check what the requirements are. If you can get hold of a successful application for the body you are submitting to, that would be very useful.

It's a good idea to 'workshop' your submission with colleagues to get the ideas flowing after that initial process of putting your ideas on paper to help you clarify your goals. Fresh perspectives can be very helpful. One way or the other, when it comes to finalising your submission it's a very good idea to have someone who knows little or nothing about the project to read the document. You will become so close to the project you might not be a very objective reader in judging if it is clear and well argued.

Finally, make sure you confirm that your submission gets to the funding body in good time - and that it has arrived safely.

Question 11: Is there anything to do after the funding submission goes in?

Make sure your referees, if you have them, receive a copy of the submission and any information about when and how they might be contacted.

You should immediately thank all the people who helped you on the way and make an undertaking to let them know about progress on the submission. This crucial step lays the foundation for a successful project.

If you are unsuccessful, contact the funding body and ask for feedback. Ask for information on any weaknesses or gaps in your submission. And what was it that made other submissions successful but not yours? This feedback can be very helpful in fine-tuning your ideas and documents so that you can move on to another submission to the same or another body.

Let your referees and supporters know the outcome - even if you feel very disappointed and don't really feel like talking about the lack of success. This process will ensure your original partners and helpers will stick with you for another attempt.

When you are successful? Have a celebration and publicly acknowledge the help you received so you can launch the processes for the project on a high note. No matter what happens, how rough or smooth, it will be an interesting journey. You will learn more than you could ever imagine and extend your professional capacity. Enjoy it.

And don't forget to let your wider group of professional colleagues know about the progress of the project by speaking publicly at conferences and informal gatherings. When it's all over, the editors of the Journal of the Australian Library and Information Association (JALIA) will be very happy to hear from you with your plans for publication.

You should also keep in touch with the funding body to let them know how the project has progressed. This positions you for another, and hopefully larger, grant.