Want to know more about a scientific study than you can glean in a 30-second news snippet? (Yep.) Here are some tips for reading research studies (relatively) quickly, so you can find out what you want—or need—to know.
Get the lay of the land
What kind of report is it? Primary research reports are divided into the following sections: abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, and references. If the article doesn’t have these sections, it’s likely a review paper, which presents a summary of the research done on a topic and is helpful if you’re looking for background information or a list of primary research studies on a topic. If you are dealing with primary research, do not plow through an entire study from beginning to end right off the bat! It’s time-consuming and can be confusing. Plus, who wants to spend time reading technical stuff when you don’t even know if you care about it? Strategic reading saves time and gives most non-experts enough information to understand and consider how the research may impact their lives.
Read the abstract to see if the study is of interest
The abstract is a summary of the basic info — and once you’ve breezed through it, you will know if you want to read further. Abstracts of research are usually available free online, so if you hear about a study on television or the radio, you can often find the abstract with a quick online search.
Check the introduction for background
The introduction is the place to find out how the study fits into the body of knowledge on the topic. It’s basically the place where authors tell what’s known, and what question their particular study is attempting to answer.
Skip the methods section unless you really know what you’re looking for
The methods section outlines the nitty-gritty of how the experiment was designed and performed. It’s usually full of scientific jargon and study design terminology, and can be daunting for non-experts in the field. Most of the time this is just fine, because you really just want to know the results. Plus, you can always backtrack and wade through this section after you’ve read the conclusions and decided if you need to know more about how the study was conducted. Here are a few tips to keep in mind if you do end up digging into the methods section.
Read through the results
The results section is where the authors tell what they found, and often present their data in tables, graphs and charts often referred to as “figures.” Spending some time looking at these figures will likely be important for understanding the data. If you are having a hard time understanding the data presented, continue on to the next section where the authors will further explain the relevance of their study.
Focus on the discussion
This is where you learn how the study results fit into the context of the research on the subject. What is the significance of the findings? How does the study contribute to the body of scientific literature on this topic? The authors usually will present limitations of their research and suggest alternative explanations for their results. A study report will always end with a conclusion, or the “take home message.” it may have its own section or may just appear at the end of the Discussion section. At the very end of every scientific study you’ll find a comprehensive list of references—other works that were used as background. It’s helpful for leading you to further reading on the topic.
A final note about the importance of context
While the media will often trumpet the latest study as being life-altering or at least notable in some way, in many cases this is not true. Huge “Eureka!” moments are rare. The scientific process moves along in steps. Sometimes those are missteps or slow steps. Realize that it usually takes many studies and many steps to get to a useful conclusion. So this is where the context of the results should always be considered. Unfortunately, they are not always reported since context has a way of “softening” the message and making it less “sexy.” The unending pressure to get a “scoop” or at least not be left behind when reporting on the latest research means context can be left out of media coverage. Here’s a great resource from Harvard about context and how to understand research. Now that you know how to read a study for yourself, you can go back and put everything into context, and then decide if it is meaningful to you.
Test out your new knowledge on this FAO report: The safety evaluation of monosodium glutamate.
Knocked my socks off with knowledge!