What is the scientific authority?
It’s not just an enjoyable academic issue. Making the wrong choice in science can have extremely serious consequences. For instance, when people in a community don’t get their children vaccinated because they’re scared from “toxins” and believe that praying (or diet, exercise as well as “clean life”) can suffice to keep them safe from the spread of infection, outbreaks can happen.
“Be skeptical. However, if you are given evidence, take it as proof.” Michael The Specter
What is sufficient proof? There is no doubt that everyone has an answer to this question. To form an informed opinion about a topic, you must learn about the current research in the field. In order to do that it is necessary to go through what is known as the “primary studies” (often simply referred to as “the literature”). It is possible that you have attempted to read scientific research papers in the past and felt frustrated by the thick, sloppy writing and the unfamiliar terminology. I can remember feeling that way! Understanding and reading research papers is an art that every scientist and doctor required to master in graduate school. You can also learn it however, just like all other skills it requires patience and practice.
I’m determined to help people to become more knowledgeable about science So I’ve written this guide to show the way a layperson should approach studying and comprehending a scientific research paper. This guide is appropriate for anyone with no prior knowledge in medicine or science, and is based on the assumption that they’re conducting this exercise for the sole purpose of understanding the basic tenets of the paper before making a decision about whether it’s a reliable research.
The kind of scientific paper I’m referring by the term “primary research” paper. It’s a peer-reviewed, peer-reviewed document of research findings on particular issue (or concerns). Another kind of publication is an article that reviews. Reviews are peer reviewed, and do not present any the latest information, but rather review a variety of primary research papers and provide an understanding of the general consensus, debates and unanswered queries within an area. (I’m in no position to talk anything more about them in this article, but you should be aware of which reviews you are reading. Be aware that they’re only an overview of research being carried out at the time of publication. A review article about for instance, genome-wide association studies dating back to 2001 will not be particularly informative in 2013. There has been so much research conducted over the last few time that it has evolved significantly).
Before you start take a few general tips
A scientific paper quite different from reading an article on science on a blog or newspaper. You not only go through the articles in a different sequence than the way they’re written in the newspaper, but you have to write notes, go through it several times, and perhaps search for other papers to find certain particulars. The process of reading a single article can take a considerable time in the beginning. Take your time. The process will be faster once you have gained the experience.
For science articles for students head on over to Futurum.
Most primary research papers will be divided into the following sections: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions/Interpretations/Discussion. The order of these sections will be determined by the journal that it’s published in. Certain journals also have extra files (called Supplementary Online Information) that contain crucial information about the research, however they are not published in the original article (make sure that you do not miss these documents).
Before reading, make note of the author’s name and affiliations with institutions. Certain institutions (e.g. University of Texas) are highly regarded, while other (e.g. Discovery Institute) are not. Discovery Institute) may appear to be legitimate research institutes however they are agenda-driven. Tips: Google “Discovery Institute” to discover the reasons why you shouldn’t consider it to be a scientific authority on evolutionary theory.
Be sure to note the journal where it is published. Credible (biomedical) journal will also be indexable by Pubmed. Edit: A few readers have reminded me that non-biomedical publications won’t appear on Pubmed They’re right! (thanks for catching this, I apologise for being unorganized here). Visit Web of Science for a more comprehensive index of journals in science. Please do not hesitate to post other sources by leaving a comment! Beware of journals with questionable content.
While you read, note down every word you aren’t understanding. It’s going to be necessary to search them all up (yes all of them. It’s a hassle. But you’ll be unable to comprehend the essay without understanding the language. The scientific terms have very precise meanings).
Step-by-step directions for reading the primary research article
1. Start in reading an introduction and not the abstract.
Abstracts are the beginning paragraph that’s at the beginning of an article. It’s actually the only portion of a paper that non-scientists will read when they’re trying to construct an argument based on science. (This is a mistake, so don’t try it.). When choosing which books to review, I determine the ones that are relevant to my interests by analyzing a combination of the abstract and title. When I’ve got an array of papers that I’ve gathered to be read thoroughly I read the abstract in the last. This is because abstracts provide a concise overview of the whole paper I’m worried that I might be influenced by the authors their interpretation of the findings.
2. Find the BIG QUESTION.
The question is not “What is this article about” Not “What is this paper about,” but “What issue is this whole field trying to resolve?”
This will help you understand the reason why this research is being conducted. Be sure to look to find evidence of research motivated by agendas.
3. Condense the background in five or less sentences.
These are questions to help you:
What has been accomplished in the past to solve the big question? What are the shortcomings of that research? What do the authors think is needed to be accomplished following?
The five sentence portion is slightly arbitrary, but it requires you to be succinct and think deeply about the significance of this study. You must be able to justify the reason why this research was conducted in order to comprehend the significance of it.
4. Determine the specific QUESTION(S)
What is it exactly that the authors are trying to find out by conducting their research? There could be multiple questions or only one. Note them down. If it’s research that test some or all of the hypotheses that are not true then identify it/them.
5. Determine the strategy
What will the authors have to do to address this SPECIFIC QUESTION(S)?
6. Read the Methods section. Draw an outline of each experiment, describing precisely what authors tried to accomplish.
It is a literal drawing. Incorporate all the details you require to fully comprehend the task. For example Here is what I sketched to help me understand the procedures for a research study I just read (Battaglia and colleagues. 2013 “The the first population of South America: New evidence from the Y-chromosome haplogroup Q”). This is a lot less information than you’d likely need because this is a paper in my area of expertise and I use these methods every day. However, if you read this and didn’t be aware of what “process data using reduced-median methods by using a Network” is, you’d have to research it.
It’s not necessary to know the procedures in sufficient depth to reproduce the experiment – that’s the job of reviewers, but you’re not yet ready to go on with the results until you are able to provide the fundamentals of the techniques to someone else.
7. Review the results section. Write a paragraph or two to summarize the findings for every experiment, each figure, and every table. Do not try to figure out what the findings mean, just note the details of what they mean.
In particular, in high-quality research papers, the majority of the findings are summarized in tables and figures. Be attentive to these! You might also have to visit the Supplementary Online Information file to see a few more of these results.
Things to look out for in the section on results:
Every time the terms “significant” are used, the words “significant” or “non-significant” are used, they mean “significant” or “non-significant”. They are precise in their statistics. Learn more about this here.
If graphs are present that show errors bars? For certain kinds of research the absence of confidence intervals is an important warning sign.
Sample size. Was the study conducted on 10 or 10,000 individuals? (For certain research needs an average sample size of 10 is enough but for the vast majority of research larger numbers are more beneficial).
8. Do the results provide your SPECIFIC QUESTION(S)? Do you believe they are referring to?
Do not move forward until you’ve considered this. It’s perfectly acceptable to change your mind based on the author’s interpretation, and you’re likely to do so when you’re still learning at this sort of analysis, but it’s an excellent habit to form your own interpretations prior to having go through the other interpretations.
9. Read the conclusion/discussion/Interpretation section.
What do the authors ‘ opinions on that the results are? Do you think they are right? Are you able to come up with an alternative interpretation of these findings? Do the authors find any flaws in their research? Do you notice any weaknesses that the authors didn’t notice? (Don’t think they’re perfect!) What are they planning to take as the next step? Are you in agreement with them?
10. Go all the way back to take a look at the abstract.
Does it align with what the authors wrote in their paper? Does it match your understanding of this paper?
11. The final step: (Don’t neglect doing this) What would other researchers think of this study?
What are some (acknowledged and self-proclaimed) expert in this specific area? Do they have criticisms for the study that you’ve never considered or do they usually agree with the study?
Here’s an area which I strongly recommend that using Google! Make sure to do it in the last place to ensure that you’re in a position to consider the opinions of others.
(12. This is a step that may not be necessary for you, based on the purpose of reading a certain piece of writing. For me, this is essential! I read the “Literature referenced” section to find out the other papers that authors referenced. This allows me to better identify the important papers in a particular field, see if the authors cited my own papers (KIDDING!….mostly), and find sources of useful ideas or techniques.)