I'm a Msc student, and my project is to develop a novel software tool for use in neurosurgery.

There is a current tool that is considered the standard of care for the procedure, but it has low rates of clinical adoption (~45%) due to archaic technical limitations. We propose that we can develop a new system, exploiting advances in available computational power and state-of-the-art image processing algorithms, that could improve the rate of adoption for these systems.

My question: Does development qualify as research? Or does research begin after development? My intuition tells me the latter.

For example, a hypothesis I could have would be "We propose that we can develop a novel system that overcomes technical limitations of traditional systems". However, this seems to be a weak hypothesis to me. Could we ever say that it is theoretically not possible to do that?

However, if research begins after development, we could propose that "our tool has increased usability compared to traditional systems". This seems much stronger to me: we can test whether our tool leads to significant improvements in different measures of usability.

I am unsure which path is more suitable to present in a formal research proposal, after all, at the stage of the proposal, we have not developed anything.

Maybe I'm not even formulating the initial hypothesis correctly.

I've looked at other dissertations in the field, and have noticed that some do not even attempt to structure the dissertation around a hypothesis, but rather say things like: "The goal of this thesis is the development of such techniques utilizing prominent HARDI data models", "This thesis presents the development of a 96-well plate culture system that allows 4-color, flow cytometry based high throughput screening of defined, serum-free hESC differentiation conditions". It seems that they just present the outcome of development, rather than test some constructed hypothesis.

I ask because my courses and committee seem to desire a formal hypothesis and I am hesitant to provide something weak.

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    By formal definition, I don't think so. That's why an R&D department is called Research and Development. Not Research/Development, not Research or Development.
    – Compass
    Mar 4, 2015 at 20:16
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    I get the impression you are overthinking this...
    – Davidmh
    Mar 4, 2015 at 20:17
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    Development involves doing things that have already been done (e.g. reinventing the wheel). Research involves doing something new and analyzing/testing its effectiveness. It sounds to me like you're doing the latter. In the end, it really doesn't matter how you phrase it in your thesis as long as you do both development and testing.
    – Paul
    Mar 4, 2015 at 20:44

3 Answers 3


The goal of research is to advance the state of human knowledge. The goal of development is to create a new capability that did not previously exist.

Sometimes, these goals are separate. For example, one might acquire knowledge by studying outcomes from a medical intervention without needing to develop anything new. Likewise, one may do development that provides new capabilities but doesn't particularly add to the state of human knowledge (e.g., making phone app versions of existing software or web sites).

Often, however, as in the case of your own research, the goals are inextricably intertwined: the capability comes from the synthesis of recent developments in knowledge, and will in turn produce new knowledge ("Yes, this is better positioned for adoption"). If you're doing it right, there will tend to be a lot of feedback between the two sides in the process, and thus the idea of does research come "before" or "after" development doesn't make much sense.

Rather, when you are putting together research proposals, I would suggest that you focus on the following questions:

  • What will be possible when you have finished the project, which is not possible now?
  • How will you be able to measure that you have succeeded?

The first is the development aspect, the second the research aspect (which is inextricably tied to the development).


Generally, scientific theses require an innovative development and some evaluation of its effectiveness for its intended uses. A thesis proposal requires some justification of why the "improvements" might be beneficial, but not necessarily direct evidence. Although, if you have already developed the "idea" and have some positive preliminary evidence to present in your proposal, this certainly helps. Often, it is not a requirement for a proposal.

In your final dissertation writeup, after you have all of your evidence and conclusions in mind, you can still structure your thesis around the presentation of the idea and its effectiveness. Either way, as long as you're doing something new and testing it, you're doing more than 'development'... you're actually doing 'research'.


I don't know the standards for neuromedicine, but in my engineering field, the research contribution, cast into medical terms, would be the increased adoption rate leading to measurably better patient outcomes. In my field, sayings like "no one ever got a PhD/tenure in this department for writing a code" are extremely common. I think this does a disservice to important work in the field, but it's an extremely common viewpoint.

As such, most famous software packages have a marker paper out there somewhere which describes the functioning of the code and an new science result enabled by it.

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    He is working on his MSc thesis project and I think that developing some codes, programs or software is a normal/common project title for MSc students in engineering fields. On the other hand, developing some codes/software may be part of a PhD student's project in engineering fields to support their computation part of their projects but not the main part.
    – enthu
    Mar 4, 2015 at 21:06
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    Yes, I see that, but my point was that some communities, communities that I happen to disagree with, concluded that code development is not research. It's very common.
    – Bill Barth
    Mar 5, 2015 at 3:08

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