How to Read a Research Paper
People say ‘do your own research’ but what does that mean. To a scientist like me it means to design and set up experiments in a lab to address a given hypothesis. But most people cannot do this so I assume that when they say ‘do your own research’ it means to read the research papers for yourself. Research papers are written by scientists after performing a series of experiments that can take years to finish. These written reports are also called ‘primary literature’ because they are the first hand account written by the investigators who do the experiments. These papers are then published in scientific peer reviewed journals for not so leisurely reading.
Secondary literature refers to articles that have been written about this primary literature. These secondary sources include news and magazine articles. In these articles the information has already been synthesized, summarized or evaluated in some way. These secondary sources are not necessarily written by scientists but by reporters so may be missing important information or diluted in such a way to make a tantalizing headline. Websites such as www.safecosmetics.org or www.mercola.com do not contain primary information but secondary information that has already been interpreted by authors of that site. Be careful that if you really want to understand a given topic or ‘do your own research’ that you are getting your information first hand, from the primary source not a secondary source. You can start your search of primary literature that relates to health issues at the National Library of Medicine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed). However, you will only find summaries or abstracts here, full text research articles can sometimes be found online or in a medical library. Be sure to read the entire article, not just the abstract or summary if you want the whole story.
Learn how to critically evaluate a research paper. There will be much jargon in a paper that is not familiar to those outside the given field of study. This requires the reader to have access to dictionaries, textbooks and more that will explain terminology and background information in the paper.
A research paper is typically broken into the following sections; abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion followed by references.
Abstract. This is a summary of the research paper with key results and conclusions. A good place to get an overview of what the paper is about.
Introduction. This is background information. It discusses relevant work that was previously done that may have led the authors to do the current study.
Materials and Methods. This gets into exactly how the experiments were done and what controls were used. This is where having some knowledge of the particular scientific field is important.
Questions the reader needs to ask here include:
Was the study’s design well matched to its purpose?
Are the experiments reproducible?
Is there enough detail in the Materials and Methods to allow another scientist to reproduce the work?
Were the methods consistent across experiments, such as using the same temperatures and time periods?
Are these the best methods to be able to answer the question put forth?
What variables might arise using these methods?
Were the investigators able to control for variables that might arise?
Results. Results are the core of a study; observations, data and other findings are presented here both in the form of pictures, graphs and words. There will be much variability in this section to account for both in measurements (technical) as well as biological variability which refers to the real differences between individuals (human or mouse). You should see a good amount of statistics in this section and knowing how to interpret that is important to assess this section. Don’t rely on the words; look closely at graphs and tables. Look at error bars, sample sizes and standard errors. Are there any data that do not reach statistical significance?
Discussion. This is where the investigators explain their findings, make conclusions based on those findings and address possible short comings or criticisms. Read this carefully to see if you reach the same conclusion that the author does based on the results given or if the author is trying to make a conclusion without having the data to support it. This part of the paper will also discuss how these results fit into other similar research that has been done. Only when there are consistencies among researchers can strong conclusions be made. What new questions arise as a result of these experiments? Its good to be a skeptic but to also be fair.
Above all, it is important to understand that because research builds upon itself and that no one research paper will answer all the questions. Uncertainly is an ongoing fact of science and it takes time to get all the answers. If you are not an expert in the area of research, there’s no doubt an aspect of the study that you will not fully understand. Oftentimes research journals will publish reviews on a given topic. These reviews are written by experts in the area and are an overview of all the published literature on a given topic. Oftentimes reaching a conclusion after reading 5-6 related articles is easier then from reading one paper. Additionally, the Cochrane Collaboration, a non profit independent organization aims to apply meta analysis, a higher level of statistical rigor, to given healthcare problems by grouping like studies to achieve more conclusive answers. And any good scientist knows that with more data conclusions can and do change and scientists need to have open minds. But as one scholar said (Arthur Hays Sulzberger) “I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”
More about the author: Cindy Jones is a formulator and microbiologist. After receiving a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Cincinnati she worked in cancer research, later as a health/medical writer and now in cosmetic science. Read more from this author