Being able to critically analyze and interpret research findings directly from an original research article is a skill that medical doctors and scientists learn at graduate school, and can be huge asset for a health coach to possess.
Reading scientific articles is not like reading other forms of literature. Scientific language is very concise, which makes for dense information-loaded reading. Like most skills, the more you practice, the better you will become, and you will find that the process of extracting information from the article will become easier with more experience.
We have previously explored the different types of scientific articles and how to find them. Here, we’re going to specifically look at how to read and understand an original peer-reviewed research article.
What Does Peer-review Mean?
Before a scientific article can be published, it must undergo evaluation by other scientists or medical professionals who work in the same field, but have no links to the current study. Most journals require two or three expert reviewers to approve a body of work before it’s accepted for publication.
Reviewers are not paid, and should have no vested interest in the study. This system (in theory) makes sure that all scientific articles uphold the high standards set by a journal in terms of novelty, relevance and experiment design. All PubMed/Medline archived articles have undergone this stringent peer-review process.
How to Perform an Initial Assessment of a Scientific Article
You’ve found a paper that has caught your eye. The title appears to be relevant to your area of interest.
What do you do next?
Here are 5 tips to help you perform an initial assessment of a scientific article:
1. Take note of the journal. Scientific and medical journals vary greatly in reputation and quality. The simplest way to gain some idea about the quality of a journal is to assess the journal’s impact factor, which is a measure of the frequency with which the average article in a journal has been cited in a particular year.
Generally speaking, a journal with a higher impact factor is often deemed to be of more importance within its field than a journal with a lower impact factor.
For example, New England Journal of Medicine has an impact factor of 55.558 whilst PLOS One has an impact factor of 3.234. Both journals contain articles that have undergone peer-review. However, the articles published in New England Journal of Medicine would have undergone a more stringent peer-review process in terms of experimental design and novelty and therefore you would expect the articles to be of a higher standard of research.
2. Take note of the authors and the institutes they are affiliated with. It’s important that you make sure that the research institute is respectable and has a strong research record. If you’re in doubt, check out the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which ranks universities based on their research output. Be wary of questionable research institutes that may have hidden agendas.
3. Check out the disclosure statement. This can be found either on the front page, or just before the reference list at the end of the paper. This is where you’ll find out the funding source for the research, which may also influence the findings of the research.
4. Scan the abstract very briefly. What you’re looking for here are the aims of the study and whether the study was performed in humans, animals, or in a dish or test tube.
5. Identify the take home message. What are the questions this study is trying to address?
If the article passes your initial assessment, it’s time to move on to reading the rest of the paper.
Scientific articles are generally written in the following order:
- Author and Institute Affiliations
- Materials and Methods
- Reference list
However, this is not necessarily the best order to read the article.
Here we’re going to introduce the different sections of the scientific article and the order in which you should read them.
1. Start with the introduction. After performing your initial assessment you can skip past the abstract and move straight to the introduction. The introduction will provide you with the background information required to put the study into context. It will include references to other peer-reviewed scientific articles that you may want to read as well.
Abstracts are best read after you’ve read the rest of the paper, as they summarize the key findings and conclusions made by the authors. It’s great to practice drawing your own conclusions before reading what the authors concluded from the study.
2. Identify the take home message of the research. The first thing you need to do is to identify the major question the study aims to address. This will likely be found towards the end of the introduction, once the scene has been set.
3. Identify the approach. What you’re looking for here is how the authors are going to address the question. You’ll find this towards the end of the introduction.
4. Critically analyze the results. After reading the introduction skip over the methods and move straight to the results section. Try your best to look at the figures and draw your own conclusions before reading the text. This will help you critically analyze the data in its purest form.
Each figure will have a detailed figure legend containing all the information you need to understand the graphs. This is when you can refer back to the materials and methods section to find out the little bits and pieces of information you may need to help you understand exactly how the experiment was performed.
5. Understand the statistics. In order to critically assess data, you need to understand a little bit about statistics. Statistics are used in research to determine the probability that the trends that are observed in the study are actually a real phenomenon and are not just occurring by chance.
To be statistically significant a trend must have a probability of less than 0.05 (p<0.05), which means that the trend is not just occurring through random variance.
The term significant means probability of less than 0.05 (p<0.05).
The term not significant means a probability equal to or greater than 0.05 (p≥0.05).
Statistical analysis cannot be performed on a data set unless there is a minimum of three replicates for each condition. If there are no error bars on a graph this is a warning sign that there may be less than three replicates per group which is poor science.
6. Read the discussion. The discussion describes how the study has contributed to knowledge in a particular field. It normally consists of a summary of the findings in relation to the current literature and may include flow diagrams and pictures to help convey a proposed hypothesis based on the findings of the study.
7. End with the abstract. After reading the whole article, it is now time to revisit the abstract. The abstract is a summary of the key point as decided by the authors of the paper. It is good practice to critically assess the article in its entirety, and draw your own conclusions on the findings, before reading the abstract in depth, as this may bias your opinion.
8. Take notes. A useful tip to help you bring the information together is to take notes. Whether it’s jotting down the details of the references that interest you or drafting a flow chart of the experimental procedures, taking notes is a great way to summarize the paper into a format that makes sense to you.
9. Sneaky tricks to look out for. With the ever increasing pressure for researchers to “publish or perish”, researchers may revert to manipulating their findings in order to make their study more publishable. One common trick researchers may use is to cherry pick their most significant finding and write the paper around this result. This can lead a reader to believe that the study had more impact and relevance than it actually does.
Being able to effectively read, understand and draw your own conclusions from a scientific article is a great skill for a health coach to possess. It will enable you to go straight to the primary source rather than relying on someone’s interpretation of the study. Like any new skill, reading scientific articles takes time and practice.
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