CommunityData:Planning document

From CommunityData


Research planning documents can help you design, scope, execute, document, and write up empirical studies. This page provides pre-defined categories and questions you should address in your research planning documents. Your mileage may vary depending on the particulars of the project design you are pursuing.

If you're reading this as part of a class, the instructor will (should?) distribute examples of a planning document in class.

Dissemination objectives

For many planning documents, it's critical to start by stating your goals and target audience for the work. Keep in mind that this part of the work is distinct from the substance of the project itself (although it may shape that substance in ways that are important to convey!).

Important questions to answer about dissemination include:

  • where do you intend to publish this?
  • is there a practitioner venue or outreach component? (if so, explain)
  • when do you target to submit and then anticipate publication?
  • will you be releasing code or datasets and, if so, how/where?

Description of substantive document sections

The general advice is to start writing brief responses for the categories below. Bullet points and short sentences are fine. No need to offer long elaborations or literature reviews. Cut to the chase, define what your project is about and how you intend to make it happen. Elaborate and refine your plans later when you're ready to prepare a more polished report or writeup of the project.

  1. Rationale
    • Answer questions like: What questions and concerns motivate your research project? What previous findings and claims will your project test, elaborate, or extend?
    • Clearly define each of the terms you will be using in your hypotheses.
    • Clearly describe the rationale for why the audience you identified is going to care about answers to the hypotheses you articulate.
  2. General and specific objectives
    • What is the general objective of this study? What broad goals will it achieve? (this might be an overarching research question)
    • What specific objectives this study will accomplish? (more narrow goals or conceptual aims)
  3. Hypotheses or propositions
    • List specific hypotheses or theoretical propositions that this study will test. These can involve statements about the relationships between concepts (e.g., "I propose that increased communication leads to increased well-being") or between variables (e.g., "I hypothesize that higher numbers of hours spent communicating leads to increased annual income, reduced blood pressure, and higher general self-efficacy (GSE) survey instrument scores.").
  4. Conceptual model (including diagram)
    • Explain the relationships or processes that exist between the dependent and independent variables most relevant to your propositions or hypotheses. Additional control variables should be added here as well.
    • Use a flow chart or some other sort of visualization to diagram the conceptual model you plan to test.
    • For every possible connection ask yourself if variable X is causing variable Y. Remember that the absence of a connection is a statement that no causal relationship exists.
  5. Ethical Concerns
    • Are identifiable data to be included? Is IRB review anticipated? How will you protect data privacy and your research subjects?
  6. Data & measures
    • Briefly describe the data used in this study. Be sure to identify the data source, the unit of analysis, the population of interest, the sample included in the study, the sampling technique (and the relationship of the sample to the population).
    • Describe the key variables & measures in your conceptual model. Present these in a tabular format or a well-formatted list. Where relevant, explain the sources of measures and/or their validity.
  7. Analytic approach and methods
    • What is your analytic approach in this study (i.e., what identification strategy will you pursue)?
    • If the study is an experiment, describe the experimental protocol and why it will allow you to test the propositions/hypotheses described above. If the study is observational, describe the analytic approach and explain why it will allow you to identify the effect of interest.
    • What methods of analysis will you use? Specifically, what estimators and estimation techniques will you apply?
    • If your study involves a regression, include the mathematical regression equation(s) here.
  8. "Dummy" findings, tables, & visualizations
    • A list of analysis results, tables, and visualizations you plan to include to report your findings in the study.
  9. Threats to validity & limitations
    • Are there potential sources of bias or threats to the validity of your study? List them out and explain why they are (or are not) salient.
    • Discuss any strategies or analyses you will pursue to test for, address, or mitigate potential biases and threats.
  10. Sources and relevant literature
    • A brief list of sources. Only include those you have cited above and others that are centrally relevant to your work here.


There are a number of examples of completed planning documents in the cdsc_examples_repository in the CDSC git repository. If you don't have access to that, contact Mako or Aaron for copies of exemplary planning documents by CDSC members and affiliates.