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How to Write the Rationale for a Research Paper

A research rationale answers the big SO WHAT? that every adviser, peer reviewer, and editor has in mind when they critique your work. A compelling research rationale increases the chances of your paper being published or your grant proposal being funded. In this article, we look at the purpose of a research rationale, its components and key characteristics, and how to create an effective research rationale.

The rationale for your research is the reason why you decided to conduct the study in the first place. The motivation for asking the question. The knowledge gap. This is often the most significant part of your publication. It justifies the study’s purpose, novelty, and significance for science or society. It’s a critical part of standard research articles as well as funding proposals.

Essentially, the research rationale answers the big SO WHAT? that every (good) adviser, peer reviewer, and editor has in mind when they critique your work. A compelling research rationale increases the chances of your paper being published or your grant proposal being funded. In this article, we look at:

  • the purpose of a research rationale
  • its components and key characteristics
  • how to create an effective research rationale

What is a research rationale?

Think of a research rationale as a set of reasons that explain why a study is necessary and important based on its background. It’s also known as the justification of the study, rationale, or thesis statement.

Essentially, you want to convince your reader that you’re not reciting what other people have already said and that your opinion hasn’t appeared out of thin air. You’ve done the background reading and identified a knowledge gap that this rationale now explains.

A research rationale is usually written toward the end of the introduction. You’ll see this section clearly in high-impact-factor international journals like Nature and Science. At the end of the introduction there’s always a phrase that begins with something like, “here we show…” or “in this paper we show…” This text is part of a logical sequence of information, typically (but not necessarily) provided in this order:

Research background Where are you coming from? Present (and cite) previous research and existing data on the topic.
Gap in the literature Based on the background evidence presented, which gap(s) haven’t been addressed? Or what’s the problem that needs solving/process that needs improving?
Research rationale Why is it important to address these gaps or solve/improve this problem/process?
Research objectives and methodology What will you explore (your research question/aim)? How will you approach it (methods)?

Here’s an example from a study by Cataldo et al. (2021) on the impact of social media on teenagers’ lives.

Research background Social media platforms play a vital role in people’s lives, especially the younger generations. Children and adolescents evolve with Internet-based services, which are integral to their development and socialization.
Gap in the literature However, various studies have indicated that mental health problems are often associated with problematic or extensive usage of such social media platforms.
Research objectives The key aim of this article is to offer an “overview of the cognitive, psychological, and social outcomes correlated with a problematic use of social media sites during the developmental stages, from age 10 to 19 years.”
Research rationale “While the scientific community has made significant progress in enhancing our understanding of the impact of social media on teenagers’ lives, more research integrating biological and environmental factors is required to fully elucidate the development of these disorders.”

Note how the research background, gap, rationale, and objectives logically blend into each other.

The authors chose to put the research aims before the rationale. This is not a problem though. They still achieve a logical sequence. This helps the reader follow their thinking and convinces them about their research’s foundation.

Elements of a research rationale

We saw that the research rationale follows logically from the research background and literature review/observation and leads into your study’s aims and objectives. This might sound somewhat abstract. A helpful way to formulate a research rationale is to answer the question, “Why is this study necessary and important?” Generally, that something has never been done before should not be your only motivation. Use it only If you can give the reader valid evidence why we should learn more about this specific phenomenon.

A well-written introduction covers three key elements:

  1. What’s the background to the research?
  2. What has been done before (information relevant to this particular study, but NOT a literature review)?
  3. Research rationale

Now, let’s see how you might answer the question.

1. This study complements scientific knowledge and understanding

Discuss the shortcomings of previous studies and explain how’ll correct them. Your short review can identify:

  • Methodological limitations. The methodology (research design, research approach or sampling) employed in previous works is somewhat flawed. Example: Here, the authors claim that previous studies have failed to explore the role of apathy “as a predictor of functional decline in healthy older adults” (Burhan et al., 2021). At the same time, we know a lot about other age-related neuropsychiatric disorders, like depression. Their study is necessary, then, “to increase our understanding of the cognitive, clinical, and neural correlates of apathy and deconstruct its underlying mechanisms.” (Burhan et al., 2021).
  • Contextual limitations. External factors have changed and this has minimized or removed the relevance of previous research. Example: You want to do an empirical study to evaluate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the number of tourists visiting Sicily. Previous studies might have measured tourism determinants in Sicily, but they preceded COVID-19.
  • Conceptual limitations. Previous studies are too bound to a specific ideology or a theoretical framework. Example: The work of English novelist E. M. Forster has been extensively researched for its social, political, and aesthetic dimensions. After the 1990s, younger scholars wanted to read his novels as an example of gay fiction. They justified the need to do so based on previous studies’ reliance on homophobic ideology. This kind of rationale is most common in basic/theoretical research.

2. This study can help solve a specific problem

Here, you base your rationale on a process that has a problem or is not satisfactory. For example, patients complain about low-quality hospital care on weekends (staff shortages, inadequate attention, etc.). No one has looked into this (there is a lack of data). So, you explore if the reported problems are true and what can be done to address them. This is a knowledge gap.

Or you set out to explore a specific practice. You might want to study the pros and cons of several entry strategies into the Japanese food market.

It’s vital to explain the problem in detail and stress the practical benefits of its solution. In the first example, the practical implications are recommendations to improve healthcare provision.

In the second example, the impact of your research is to inform the decision-making of businesses wanting to enter the Japanese food market. This kind of rationale is more common in applied/practical research.

3. You’re the best person to conduct this study

It’s a bonus if you can show that you’re uniquely positioned to deliver this study, especially if you’re writing a funding proposal. For an anthropologist wanting to explore gender norms in Ethiopia, this could be that they speak Amharic (Ethiopia’s official language) and have already lived in the country for a few years (ethnographic experience). Or if you want to conduct an interdisciplinary research project, consider partnering up with collaborators whose expertise complements your own. Scientists from different fields might bring different skills and a fresh perspective or have access to the latest tech and equipment. Teaming up with reputable collaborators justifies the need for a study by increasing its credibility and likely impact.

When is the research rationale written?

You can write your research rationale before, or after, conducting the study. In the first case, when you might have a new research idea, and you’re applying for funding to implement it. Or you’re preparing a call for papers for a journal special issue or a conference. Here, for instance, the authors seek to collect studies on the impact of apathy on age-related neuropsychiatric disorders.

In the second case, you have completed the study and are writing a research paper for publication. Looking back, you explain why you did the study in question and how it worked out.

Although the research rationale is part of the introduction, it’s best to write it at the end. Stand back from your study and look at it in the big picture. At this point, it’s easier to convince your reader why your study was both necessary and important.

How long should a research rationale be?

The length of the research rationale is not fixed. Ideally, this will be determined by the guidelines (of your journal, sponsor etc.). The prestigious journal Nature, for instance, calls for articles to be no more than 6 or 8 pages, depending on the content. The introduction should be around 200 words, and, as mentioned, two to three sentences serve as a brief account of the background and rationale of the study, and come at the end of the introduction.

If you’re not provided guidelines, consider these factors:

  1. Research document: In a thesis or book-length study, the research rationale will be longer than in a journal article. For example, the background and rationale of this book exploring the collective memory of World War I cover more than ten pages.
  2. Research question: Research into a new sub-field may call for a longer or more detailed justification than a study that plugs a gap in literature.

    Which verb tenses to use in the research rationale?

    It’s best to use the present tense. Though in a research proposal, the research rationale is likely written in the future tense, as you’re describing the intended or expected outcomes of the research project (the gaps it will fill, the problems it will solve).

Example of a research rationale

Research question: What are the teachers’ perceptions of how a sense of European identity is developed and what underlies such perceptions?

Research background Educational systems, and European schools, in particular, play an integral role in pupils’ sense of individual, national, and European identity. Situated at the heart of the European political project, the concept of a “European identity” points to one’s sense of ‘being European’ and feeling an intimate relationship with Europe (Polyakova & Fligstein, 2016; CiCe Jean Monnet Network, 2017).
Gap in the literature Although we have substantial information about the institutional initiatives and policies intended to boost children’s sense of European identity (European Commission, 2017), far less is known about educators’ perceptions of how a sense of Europeanness can be fostered among their students.
Research rationale Mapping such perceptions is vital to (i) explore what works in terms of the practices implemented so far and (ii) inform and improve future decision-making. The need for this research is further highlighted by the post-2010s rise of right-wing nationalism and Euroscepticism across Europe (de Prat, 2013).
Research objectives and methodology Drawing on the theories of Cohen et al. (2018) and Braun & Clarke (2006), this paper deploys thematic analysis on ten semi-structured interviews conducted with teachers in five European schools across Europe (Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg).

References

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101. Burhan, A.M., Yang, J., & Inagawa, T. (2021). Impact of apathy on aging and age-related neuropsychiatric disorders. Research Topic. Frontiers in Psychiatry Cataldo, I., Lepri, B., Neoh, M. J. Y., & Esposito, G. (2021). Social media usage and development of psychiatric disorders in childhood and adolescence: A review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11. CiCe Jean Monnet Network (2017). Guidelines for citizenship education in school: Identities and European citizenship children’s identity and citizenship in Europe. Cohen, l, Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2018). Research methods in education. Eighth edition. London: Routledge. de Prat, R. C. (2013). Euroscepticism, Europhobia and Eurocriticism: The radical parties of the right and left “vis-à-vis” the European Union P.I.E-Peter Lang S.A., Éditions Scientifiques Internationales. European Commission. (2017). Eurydice Brief: Citizenship education at school in Europe. Polyakova, A., & Fligstein, N. (2016). Is European integration causing Europe to become more nationalist? Evidence from the 2007–9 financial crisis. Journal of European Public Policy, 23(1), 60-83. Winter, J. (2014). Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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