Tips for Better Proposals

The classmate-you-never-had, Brett Lang, Rowan class of 2020, was smart. He published his Proposal, 5 Sources post early, to benefit from feedback before the deadline so his revised draft would be as good as it could be. His willingness to invite scrutiny early will benefit us all and I’m grateful to him even now for helping out in this way.

For my research topic I will be examining the safety and efficiency of different dietary supplements that are, or have been out on the market. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not classify dietary supplements as drugs, and therefore they do not have to be proven safe before sale. They can be put out on the market claiming to help people lose weight or with other different problems that they could face without being checked for problematic side effects first. The FDA will only investigate the supplements for problems after there has been many claims of harmful side effects from such supplements. There have been many different supplements that have caused opposite reactions for which they are suppose to help with, and also have caused even worse problems that can be life threatening to the user. Producers of these supplements also aren’t regulated to define harmful side effects from their products on the label, which can hide valuable information from the user. I will be researching the effects from certain supplements and finding information on how effective and helpful certain products will be to someone. I will also be looking for different unseen side effects from these products to figure out just how safe some products are, or were that had been removed from sale. My main goal is to find out just what these different supplements help with and how true their claims are. I also want to know how they have effected people, and if some cause side effects that are not being told about that could cause different, or worse physical problems to the user.I will be trying to find the risk to the health and safety of the user of these supplements that the people using the product are so sure of will help them.

Brett’s first draft proposes what I’m sure many of you will also want to do: a project that involves mostly reporting the results of other people’s findings on a broad topic. The pattern for such a project is 1) name a category of study, in this case food supplements, 2) suggest an area of research, in this case whether the supplements are safe and effective, 3) collect and retell several episodes, in this case instances of trouble with supplements, either their inefficiencies or their dangers.

The proposed paper would rightly demonstrate a clear counterintuitive result of supplements. Supplements purport to improve our lives but often make things worse. That could be a good solid C paper if it’s done well. For higher grades, writers will need to show a different sort of ambition and follow a different plan.

  • Narrow that topic. Supplements is too broad since it includes dietary aids, energy drinks, cold remedies, body building powders, holistic cures, and countless other categories. Even one of these categories would be too broad for meaningful research. Safety and efficiency is too broad since it requires different proofs for two very broad claims. Side effects is actually a third very broad category since effective supplements have side effects that wouldn’t disqualify them from use while useless products that kill have no excuse for existing.
  • Approach a very narrow topic from several angles. Of the five examples Brett has selected for preliminary review, one will offer him the best opportunity to make an effective and thorough case for or against supplements. His proposal offers us many clues for how to organize his paper. The next several items are tips on working those angles.
  • Angle 1. Categorical argument. The FDA does not classify dietary supplements as drugs, Brett tells us. That’s particularly relevant and worth a paper of its own. What do the different classifications require of their manufacturers and marketers? How well does the one supplement Brett chooses to investigate meet or challenge the category it’s listed in?
  • Angle 2. Evaluative argument. The supplement does not have to be proven safe prior to its sale, Brett tells us. This is of course an opportunity to investigate how anything can be proven safe, but it also suggests another angle Brett doesn’t mention. Does the supplement have to be proven effective? Can I offer a red tablet as a supplement and market it as effective in reducing blueness without any evidence at all?
  • Angle 3. Comparative argument. Brett wants to talk about side effects in a very broad and general way. But, frankly, aren’t there extremely significant side effects to drugs that the FDA does license? All his evidence of negative effects won’t mean much if the same could be said of legitimate approved drugs.
  • Angle 4. Proposal argument. If his in-depth investigation of a single supplement—its development, its marketing claims, its compliance with regulations if any, its efficacy, its dangers, its catastrophic outcomes—tells a compelling story, Brett may be able to make a recommendation for where in the chain of availability the product could have been improved, or more appropriately marketed, or better labeled, or perhaps prescribed, to maximize its benefits and minimize its risks.

I hope it’s clear there’s still plenty of substance to the narrower topic to make a valuable paper. I hope too that you’ll do this narrowing exercise for yourselves before you publish your own Proposal posts. I’d hate to have to run through this exercise for twenty more topics (and of course, I won’t; that’s what models are for).

If you elect to post an early draft of your Proposal+5 to get a quick reaction, remember to put it into the Feedback Please category to catch my attention.

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