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Inspired - but is your research idea novel?

Inspired - but is your research idea novel?

01 April 2019

Dean Phillips, Senior Research Adviser, RDS South Central and Claire Rosten, Research Methodologist, RDS South East

When inspiration strikes for research, it can do so in different ways.

You can have a sudden realisation about something in your practice – why are we doing it like this, wouldn’t it be better if we did things differently?

You can be reading a journal and come across a potential new treatment – if this works there for these service users, I wonder what if it could work for mine?

You can be talking to a colleague and realise you have overlapping remits and think – I wonder if we could work more efficiently together to deliver in a better way?

You could be talking to a patient and something they say could strike a chord – I’ve never thought about it from that perspective before, I wonder how we could help?

Regardless of from where it comes, the inspiration for your research idea may first seem revolutionary – why are we doing things like this when perhaps we could do them better like that?  This is, of course, where research can come in and where the NIHR, as an applied funder of health and social care research, leads the way.

However, before you crack open an application form and start writing, there is something you must do first.  You must ensure that your idea is novel.  This, along with assessing whether the topic is a priority for funding, is the first check any funding panel will make when assessing applications.

So, where to start? A Google search is the obvious place and may well show you papers published in the area. This can give you an early indication of whether your idea is a new as you think it is and will also provide you with useful literature as you plan and refine your study and its hypotheses.

However, you obviously need to go further. Study databases are another good place to look. Sites such as, a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies, will give you an overview of what’s going on in the area around the world.  The International Standard Registered Clinical/soCial sTudy Number (ISRCTN) registry is another good source - a primary clinical trial registry that accepts all clinical research studies (whether proposed, ongoing or completed) assessing the efficacy of health interventions, both observational and interventional. UK Clinical Trials Gateway is a website and search tool to find what research is taking place in the UK, where you can search on any condition and the World Health Organization International Clinical Trials Registry Platform search portal provides access to trial registration details provided by numerous named registries listed on the web link. It also provides links to the full original records.

Then there are publication databases (such as PubMed, Cochrane and Europe PMC) where you can review existing evidence of your research topic. The NICE guidelines are also useful in demonstrating where your research proposal will sit within current guidelines.  Importantly, NICE guidelines also give recommendations for future research. If your research topic is recommended by NICE, use this as supporting evidence for your grant application. How your research will benefit patients and change practice for the better is key in an application to NIHR.  

It is obviously really important that you also know what exactly the funder you’re applying to has already funded in the area. All the research that NIHR funds is freely available – this includes studies that have been published, those that have finished but are not yet published, as well as those that are in progress and waiting to start. The NIHR Journals library covers studies funded by the Efficacy and Mechanism Evaluation, Health Services & Delivery Research, Health Technology Assessment, Programme Grants for Applied Research, Programme Development Grants, and Public Health Research programmes. For completed Research for Patient Benefit programme projects, you can look here and for completed NIHR fellowship projects, have a look here.

One final thing you should do: contact your local NIHR Research Design Service. We’re here to offer free and confidential expert methodological advice on your research application, and this includes demonstrating novelty.

You may discover that you are not the first to be inspired by your particular research idea, but do not lose hope. Answering one research question often leads to yet more and there will always be scope for improving outcomes for service users.

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