Scientific Journal Articles

How to read and assess research articles

Once you have located a research article on your topic, it helps to approach it with an understanding of how it is organized and what it is attempting to accomplish.

Articles vary in format, but in general follow a logical scheme. They begin with a section that looks at the background to the study and an explanation of why the authors chose to do the experiment. Then comes an explanation of how the researchers carried out the experiment, followed by their findings and their conclusions.

Following the title of the article, the authors who contributed to the work are listed. The first author is often considered to be the project leader. The last author is generally the senior author, who often heads the established lab where the work was primarily done. Usually the lead or senior author will be designated as the person to contact for further information.

An abstract of an article is a summary of the paper and appears after the list of authors. If there is an introduction, it describes the background leading up to the research, and often mentions other similar studies. If well written, the introduction will bring readers up to speed on the field and leave them with an understanding of why the authors decided to do the experiments they are presenting. Some articles omit this section, or condense it, to save space and jump immediately to the new research.

The materials and methods section provides the experimental details of how the research was conducted. Many of the laboratory techniques may seem obscure or complicated, but a look through the section can give some important information. One detail that is particularly telling is whether the researchers worked with humans, primates, mice, other animals, cultured cells, molecules or a computer model. If a study is not done in people, it can still lead to very valuable findings, but a drug that works for a mouse, for example, may be decades away from availability to patients, if ever.

In publications reporting findings from human clinical trials, different information is generated from various types of trials. Phase I trials are preliminary studies to establish the safety of a drug, while phase II trials include more participants to examine the drug’s effectiveness. In phase III trials, researchers compare a new therapy to either an existing one or a placebo, which is an inactive drug.

The most scientifically robust phase III trials are randomized and double-blind. Study participants are randomly assigned to receive the active therapy or standard therapy/placebo. The standard therapy or placebo group is known as the control group, which the researchers use to compare the active therapy with the standard of care. Assigning patients at random increases the chance of the two comparison groups being as similar as possible. In a double-blind trial, neither the patient nor the physician knows whether the patient got the active therapy, which helps to ensure unbiased findings.

Although randomized, controlled double-blind trials provide the most useful information, sometimes it is not possible to do such trials for ethical reasons. The next best type of study is the cohort study, in which researchers compare two groups of people over a period of time. Case-control studies are less reliable than either randomized controlled trials or cohort studies. In case-control studies, patients who already have a certain condition are compared with people who do not. Researchers may use the relatively quick and easy case-control study as a first test of a medical hypothesis, then confirm the results with a cohort study or randomized controlled trial.

In the materials and methods section, it is also good to note how many people or animals or cells are included in the research—the more things studied, the better the chance that any phenomenon noticed in that group is real and not just coincidence. If you see that a clinical trial included just 20 patients or so, it doesn’t necessarily mean that whatever findings came from this group aren’t solid, but further testing in more people is needed to make sure. On the other hand, if a trial included thousands of people, the results would more likely reflect the array of conditions that an average patient might experience.

The results section presents the study’s findings, often with graphs and tables to show the data. The discussion puts the findings into context and often speculates about the implications of the research and future possibilities.

Throughout the paper, the authors refer to previous publications to back up their statements. These are noted with numbers in the text, in superscript or parentheses, that correspond to citations listed at the end of the article in its references section. You might want to look up references for background information, especially those that appear in the introduction. If you are reading an article online, references may have a weblink.

Somewhere near the end of an article, researchers will acknowledge others who made contributions to the work. They will also state who funded the study. A majority of medical studies are funded at least in part by grants from one of the National Institutes of Health. Sometimes pharmaceutical or other companies fund studies. Company funding doesn’t necessarily mean that the research is biased toward a favorable outcome for the company’s drug or treatment, but it may warrant scrutiny. There is currently a great deal of controversy about pharmaceutical companies funding research and paying researchers as consultants. Different journals deal with this in different ways, but many now require that authors must disclose any financial interests with a company.

In general, the easiest article sections for a non-expert to comprehend are the introduction and the discussion—the background or context and the significance of the findings. In contrast, the results section can be riddled with formulas and statistics. However, an understanding of just a couple of basic concepts in statistics will get you far in appreciating the significance of findings.

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