How to Series – Interpret a study: background
We see and hear information in the news, on social media, and from friends and family. Frequently, people will mention research or a study to validate a fact or prove a point. In this two-part series, we explore how to interpret a study.
What is a study?
A scientific study typically refers to an article that is written that describes in detail experiments that a researcher or group of researchers conduct using the “scientific method”. The scientific method involves: (1) asking a question; (2) obtaining background information on the topic to understand what has been done to date; (3) constructing a hypothesis; (4) designing and conducting specific experiments to test your hypothesis; (5) analyzing and interpreting the results, such that you can accept or reject your hypothesis; (6) drawing conclusions and (7) writing up the findings and interpretation for submission to a scientific journal for review by your peers; and (8) publication in a scientific journal, if your peers judge your work and conclusions to be sound.
What is a hypothesis?
Researchers at the Ph.D. level spend years developing their expertise in a specific area. When it relates to their field, they will use their expertise to make an educated guess about why or how something occurs, to provide an explanation.
While they may have a fairly good idea that their assumptions and observations are correct, they have no evidence to support this statement. Without evidence, they have an opinion or a hypothesis, not a fact.
They need to conduct research that can be reviewed by other scientists before they can proceed and share their results.
How is a research project or study accomplished?
There are methods, tools, and techniques taught to researchers that help them develop and conduct a rigorous study.
Often, the materials, tools, and resources needed to conduct a study are expensive and require the researchers to apply for financial support by way of grants to fund the research needs.
Once funding has been secured, they conduct their research, analyze the results, and determine if the results are impactful. Subsequently, they work to publish their results in a respected scientific journal.
What is an scientific journal? Why do they matter?
Scientific journals are the mechanism researchers use to communicate their findings and share their outcomes with other researchers and people who may be interested in the results.
Like a magazine you’d find in a grocery store, each scientific journal has a reputation called a ranking, a focus/interest area, and editor to curate content.
Unlike a magazine, scientific journals have a peer-review process required for every article published in the journal.
So, researchers will submit their completed study in the form of a paper summarizing what has been done by others on this topic, the methodology they used to conduct their study, results they obtained, and the conclusion they have reached to the scientific journal in their field. The editor will determine if the paper meets the format and subject matter requirements of the journal. If so, the editor will send the research article for peer-review.
In every field, there are experts who study certain focus areas. Some fields of study are exceedingly narrow, meaning only a few people will have the knowledge base to evaluate whether a research study has been conducted in a thorough and ethical manner and whether the results support the conclusions being made. These folks are considered peers. They are often other researchers working in a similar or related area of science. In reputable journals, reviewers are always volunteers who are not paid for their reviews.
The editor then sends the paper for peer-review. The scientists reviewing the paper will provide their recommendations to the editor – to accept for publication, reject, or revise. Revisions can be as simple as editorial changes to the paper or more involved as the need for conducting additional experiments to support a conclusion.
If the research study makes it through peer-review, it is then published in the journal to be shared with the larger research community and the public.
How do I know if a journal is reputable?
A journal’s ranking typically determines the quality of the journal. For example, the scientific journal Nature is a prestigious high-ranking journal, so it’s difficult to publish in that scientific journal. However, not every research paper fits the type of research Nature is seeking out, or the research is important and impactful but not so important or impactful that it should be in a high tier journal.
A paper doesn’t need to be published in Nature to be impactful or high-quality, but it does need to be in a quality journal.
Reputable journals can be found in archives like PubMed (open access) (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/), Web of Science (paid access only) (https://www.webofknowledge.com/), Scopus (paid access only) https://www.scopus.com/, Google Scholar (open access, less curation for quality journals) (scholar.google.com), university library system websites (semi-open access) and more.
When in doubt, you can search for a scientific journal and look up the history and ranking of the journal.
What is a conflict of interest?
When researchers or an academic journal has a vested interest in an area, typically an area with potential financial gain, they could have an inherent bias or conflict that puts the credibility of the research in question.
For example, if a tobacco company says smoking doesn’t cause cancer and then it pays researchers to conduct studies that support those claims, then they create a low-quality scientific journal that looks legitimate to publish those false claims. To the untrained eye, it can look like the research is legitimate but when you dig deeper you can see the red flags that the conclusions are not supported by the finding, or the rigor of the studies is questionable.
Is the academic publishing process foolproof for catching every poorly conducted study?
Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect system and there aren’t perfect peer-reviewers. Sometimes research that of questionable quality or misleading can slip through the cracks and reach publication even in a high-quality journal before errors and other shortcomings are discovered. When this occurs, papers are can be retracted.
Additionally, most scientific journals are behind paywalls, and it can be expensive to buy access to the services and papers.
The good news.
While it sounds like a tedious process to vet your information before reading a study, it’s the best way to ensure you’re getting the best information.