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Becoming a Critical Reader: An introduction

We’ve finished our series on finding research articles, the next series will focus on how to critically read articles in order to evaluate them. I think we all know there is good research and bad research, so now we’ll explore how to tell the difference.

You’ve found an article that looks promising. Now what?

First, you’ll want to give it a quick read-through. You’ll be going back later to do the real critical analysis, so don’t get bogged down in the details at this point.

Start with the abstract, a short summary of what the article contains. The abstract will give you a brief overview of the article and its contents. Keep in mind that abstracts are not comprehensive, and are written by the study authors. They are in a sense similar to theatrical trailers. You can often get the basic gist of what the article is about from the abstract, but just like a well-done movie trailer can make a bad movie look good, you can’t gauge the quality of an article by the abstract alone. Read the whole thing!

You’ll often hear references to “studies”, “the research” or “the literature” – but not all articles published in professional journals are the same. In this initial read-through, you’ll want to determine what kind of article this is and if it fits your needs.

Among the kinds of articles you may find in professional journals are:

Literature Reviews – These articles attempt to do a search of all available research on a particular topic and summarize the research for the reader.

Case Reports – Generally these articles focus on more rare events or novel experiments. They may help the author find others who have experienced similar rare events, or “show off” the author’s creative solutions to such rare events.

Opinion piece – In these articles, the author shares a personal opinion on any topic or thoughts on a piece of research. It is not uncommon for the editor of a journal to publish a comment piece on a new study being published in that same issue.

Original research – This is generally what people are referring to when they talk about “studies”. In original research, the authors have done something from scratch. This may be an experiment that was conducted, a new analysis of information previously gathered (like data extracted from chart reviews), interviews, surveys, etc. We will go into much more detail on original research in future articles.

Systemic review/Meta-analysis – We will get into the details of these in a later article, but for now, just know that these kind of articles take the data from previously published studies and analyze that data to come up with a conclusion. The most well-known of these types of articles are the Cochrane Reviews.

Next you’ll want to make sure you’re clear on one thing: What did the authors set out to do? When you do the critical reading, you’ll be keeping that purpose in mind as a measuring stick of sorts to see how well the authors or researchers accomplished that goal.

And that’s it for the initial read through! Now that you have an overall sense of what the article you’ve found is all about, we’ll get ready to do the real critical analysis.

Tomorrow: how to detect bias in research!

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  1. February 16th, 2010 at 23:09 | #1

    I just wanted to say that I found this blog because I am pregnant and was looking for information, and that’s originally why I started reading it. I am also a former scientist and current science teacher, and I really appreciate this series on research articles. I always hoped my students left me knowing how to be scientifically literate and read critically- you have done a nice job explaining what research articles are like and how to read them- I look forward to the next installment!

  2. March 5th, 2010 at 18:22 | #2

    Thanks for this article. I couldn’t agree more. It is a shame that the Grey Journal (American Journal of OB/GYN) has gone to an abridged articles in print, as it makes it very hard to read the entire article and very much encourages superficial reading. Its hard to fight against this when our top journal endorse reading 1 page reviews!

    Thanks!

  1. April 18th, 2010 at 15:58 | #1