It is a lot of work to grind through a research project and get an interesting paper out of it. Mostly, you have to be patient enough and work everyday at it. If you follow a sane process, it is difficult to fail entirely.
Picking the right research question is very important however: it is difficult to recover from a bad choice of topic. There are at least 3 types of good research questions: 1) explain with a theoretical model a (puzzling) experimental observation 2) improve by at least an order of magnitude an existing technique 3) make up a new problem and be the first to propose a solution (I call it Turney’s way).
I now believe that options 1 and 3 are far better than option 2. To illustrate my opinion, here is a little scenario:
- read a paper;
- think to yourself: I could improve this idea ten times over;
- get excited, dream of fame, start crafting a paper;
- late on Friday night, realize your contribution is tiny;
- keep going (because you have invested so much);
- months later, publish a weak paper.
So I submit to you Lemire’s first rule of good research: you must either be trying to explain puzzling experimental results, or be inventing new problems. In some sense, it amounts to discarding the “engineering way” which is to constantly perfect existing techniques.