Did you miss me? With it being Thanksgiving last week, I thought it best to spend the time with family rather than researching and writing a blog post while the kids had a break from school. From here on out for the holiday season, too, I’m suspecting the posts may be staggered every other week so still stay with me (us, when hubby has some spare time)!
So with your newfound knowledge on how to search PubMed effectively from our last Science Saturday post, how about some useful tips to keep in mind when reading through research articles? Sometimes it feels like one is reading one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays or even a book in an entirely different language (it practically is) but learning to read research papers can be a useful skill if one takes the time to hone and master it.
What is it?
Is it an article describing a well-designed research study comparing a novel treatment to a placebo? Is it a meta-analysis of all there is or systematic review from Cochrane? Or is it an editorial opinion? Each has it’s place in the world of research and you can learn more about the hierarchy of evidence here.
Population and Sample Size
If it’s a study comparing different treatments or a new drug, what is the sample size? Twelve, twenty, two hundred thousand? The bigger the sample size, the more representative and useful it will be. A small sample isn’t necessarily bad, it just means it should be replicated in a larger population before claiming factual evidence of something.
Who and/or what did it include in the test population? Was the population representative of mainly children, females only, or an elderly population? Were tests carried out in a petri dish, mice, or humans? Mice, though also mammals, still have physiological differences when compared to humans. As a favorite comic says, “Keep in mind” that anything that can happen in a petri dish does not translate over to what happens inside the human body.
Replication is Key
Everyone needs to remember the importance of rechecking and replicating results. Just like in scientific research, bakers replicate the recipes of others in their own kitchens. The comments sections of blogs are the peer review section. Sometimes we get similar results and sometimes we don’t. If I try a new recipe and it flops, I’m not always quick to throw it out. I like to look back and see what I might have done wrong. Did I follow the recipe exactly? Oops! I forgot the baking soda! If I did follow the recipe to the T, perhaps I could compare it to similar recipes or read the comments section if the recipe is online and try something different. That’s kitchen science!
The impact factor of journal is a statistical number determined by how often a journal’s articles have been cited by other journals. Like a grade point average or perhaps even just a popularity score, some love it while others hate it. There are journals that have been around a long time and therefore may have high influence. Others are new and upcoming and haven’t quite developed a good impact factor.
“Pay-to-play” journals is where anyone can get published if they just pay a fee and should be approached with caution. In other words, this is where anyone can get published, even if it’s shoddy research or even has been retracted, meaning published but then thrown out when found to be bad or even false, by another journal. They are considered predatory and may be rank with fake research. One way to think of it is how anyone can publish an ebook on amazon. Whether it will become a best seller is possible but also highly improbable.
Last of all, one doesn’t need to nor should read alone. Find a friend or reach out and make new friends in the world of science! Be patient as some may be socially awkward or come off as rude at first but there are more scientists working more and more on communicating their fields of research to the public. Seek out those reputable and trusting sources for information. I follow a slew of facebook groups run by science-minded folk!
In the end, google may give you thousands of results, scientist friends can help you interpret those results.