How to write a concept paper effectively

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How to write a concept paper effectively

What is a concept paper?

Simply put, a concept paper is a preliminary document that sets out to explain what a proposed study is about, why it is being undertaken, and how it will be carried out. It scrutinizes a concept or idea and provides an overview of the project a researcher wants to embark on.

A researcher might need to write a concept paper to obtain permission to undertake the research project or to seek financial support for it. This means that a well-framed and compelling concept paper has high chances of convincing the target reader that the proposed research project is worth carrying out. In other words, an impressive concept paper might help a researcher secure the approvals or grants they are looking for.

Why write a concept paper?

Concept papers are typically prepared by entrepreneurs working on a business proposal or product, or by students and researchers in academia. Such documents are aimed at securing feedback on a research idea and seeking potential investors or funders. In fact, such a document might even help determine whether a project idea is feasible in the first place.

In academia, a concept paper might be needed before an undergraduate, master’s, or doctoral candidate commences work on a research project with a supervisor. Even advanced career researchers or principal investigators might need to draft a concept paper when submitting a project proposal to a funding body to obtain the necessary grants.

Listed below are some reasons why concept papers are important.

1. To explore and expand an idea: Researchers can use concept papers to transform an incipient research idea into a focused, high-quality study proposal. The paper is also a means to obtain feedback that can be used to strengthen a detailed proposal at a later stage.

2. To draw the interest of funding agencies: Through an effective concept paper, an investigator can justify why their project is worthy of funding. If the project is within the mission of the funding body and has potential to advance the field, the investigator has a high chance of success in obtaining the required grants.

3. To identify potential flaws or gaps beforehand: Putting in time and effort in writing a concept paper will help develop a focused description of the project and will allow the researcher to examine the problem from all angles. At early stages, experts or funders might spot potential gaps and weaknesses in the proposed project. Accordingly, the researcher can identify solutions and improve the proposal (e.g., in terms of the goals or methodology).

4. To serve as the foundation of the full proposal: A concept paper is preliminary, as it precedes a full proposal. Funding agencies often ask for concept papers before the full proposal submission. This helps assess whether the identified experimental methods are appropriate and can be performed within the specific timeframe drawn up for the project.

5. To help a researcher stick to project timelines: A concept paper defines a timeline, which helps the investigator to keep the project on track, manage time effectively, and reach the targeted milestones successfully.

How should a concept paper be structured?

A concept paper could be within 5 pages for proposals for master’s or PhD projects. Concept papers written as part of funding applications might even be up to 20 pages long. The format and flow of the paper would depend on the type of project and expected outcome.

Funding bodies requesting concept papers might provide a template or format, which should be adhered to. However, if templates or formats are not specified, a concept paper may be structured according to the chief elements described below.

1. An impactful title: The title should be sufficiently informative and leave a lasting impression. It should reflect the purpose and significance of the study. The title should not be too long (ideally within 15 words). The title could even be in the form of a question.

2. A clear mission statement: In a few sentences, the study objective(s) or research question should be stated. Given that the main objective of a concept paper is to convince the reader that the proposed project is worth executing, it must convey the novelty and research rationale in a convincing manner.

3. A brief yet effective overview: A concept paper should present a survey of the problem, supported by a preliminary literature review of the research topic. However, the review need not be too detailed. The paper should provide a summary of what is already known about the topic and an explanation of what knowledge gaps the research is expected to fill. Any contradictory theories may also be indicated.

4. An outline of the proposed methods: The methods that the researcher plans to use to answer the research question should be described. This section would cover ethical issues (if applicable), experimental materials and methods, the type of data to be collected, and the methods by which the data will be collected and analyzed. The estimated time to achieve different research goals should also be indicated.

5. A statement of the expected implications: A concept paper would be incomplete without a concise section on short-term and long-term impacts of the research, potential applications, impact on society and policies, and any other future visions. Know how to write a statement of the problem in a step-by-step way.

What are the key points to remember when drafting a concept paper?

1. Keep the reader in mind: If the concept paper targets experts in the field or potential collaborators/partners, it should be tailored accordingly, e.g., it can contain technical language. If the audience comprises potential sponsors/funders, the concept paper should be streamlined, keeping in mind their priorities and requirements. Such a version should contain minimal jargon and be easily digestible by non-specialists.

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    2. Note that a concept paper is not a journal article: Concept papers differ from journal articles in that the primary aim of a concept paper is to convince a sponsor of the feasibility and significance of a project. In that sense, it is akin to a sales pitch! It should highlight the project’s purpose and impact. To strengthen one’s case, previously awarded grants or published papers may also be indicated.

    3. Make a good impression: While a concept paper should be cogent and compelling, it goes without saying that the document should be well-written and well-formatted, as well as free of grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors. Clarity, consistency, and conciseness are key. In the absence of a formatting template, basic formatting should be in place, e.g., uniform font, adequate line spacing, and appropriate margins. Under Editage’s Scientific Editing Service, a researcher can have a concept paper assessed by a subject matter expert for an in-depth critique on the content and further checked and corrected by editors for language and readability.

    Are you brimming with ideas for a research project? Now that you know the main elements that might give your proposal an edge over others, maybe you are ready to set a project in motion by starting with a concept paper. 

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    Published on: Jul 15, 2021

    Sunaina did her masters and doctorate in plant genetic resources, specializing in the use of molecular markers for genotyping horticultural cultivars
    See more from Sunaina Sinha


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