Becoming a Critical Reader: Bias, Bias Everywhere!

Pretty much everyone would agree that there is bias in research. Most people would say that bias is inherently bad. While it absolutely can be a bad thing, it can’t be completely eliminated. So what can be done about bias in research?

There are many kinds of bias:

  • Researcher bias: researcher sets out wanting to the study to prove something, and intentionally or unintentionally manipulates the study to make sure that happens
  • Sponsor bias: The organization that sponsors the study either encourages researcher bias or manipulates the publication of the data. Some studies might be completely suppressed, some might have overly inflated press releases touting minimal results.
  • Publication bias: Journals must be selective in what they publish due to space limitations, but I think it is fair to say that some journals may choose not to publish a study that might anger its audience.

But today I want to focus on READER bias:

Your first job in the critical reading of an article is to check your bias. We are all human, and so we all have bias. Sometimes it is hard to see your own biases. Take a look at the pictures below. In the first picture, we can tell that there is something there, but it is difficult to see. In this case, the letters are lined up with our angle of vision.


In this second picture, the letters are running the opposite way as our line of vision, and as you can see, suddenly that bias is crystal clear!


The same is true with our reading of the research. The biases that we have act as a filter that alters our reactions to the research. If we already have our minds made up that induction of labor = bad, then any research on labor induction is going to be seen through that filter. Any research that seems to place induction in a favorable light will be seen has highly suspicious. Any minor flaws will be exaggerated. Any research showing bad outcomes from inductions will likely get a “free pass” and flaws may be overlooked.

Murray Enkin, author of “A Guide to Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth”, said this:

Perhaps the most important bias of all resides in the (potential) reader, who determines how (or if) the results will be read and interpreted.

I would agree with him. I have, over the years, seen the best and worst of research used to back up various points, ignoring the quality (of lack of it!) as long as it agrees with them. This is a normal human tendency, and one that is at the heart of many discussions about the available research.

But the good news is that reader bias isn’t impossible to overcome.

The solutions? Awareness of bias and a change of perspective! As you read, consider how this research might be read and understood by someone with a completely different perspective. When you read a study that really resonates as a great study with you, play “devil’s advocate” and pick it apart. Be merciless in looking for flaws, weaknesses and the other types of bias listed above. The same is true of seeing an article you disagree with. Look for strengths and solid evidence. Have an open mind to other possibilities. Sometimes when doing this, you’ll be able to see some aspects you would never have noticed otherwise.

So, here’s an exercise for you. Take a few minutes, and write down what your biases are when it comes to research. Which kinds of research, which methods, which topics do you particularly feel drawn to? Which ones seem silly or useless? For inspiration, you may want to read a personal commentary article written by Murray Enkin (2008) where he goes through his own personal biases. The things he feels a bias for or against may not be the same for you. I know I have a disagreement with one of his stated preferences. But taking the time to carefully think through your own personal biases, to clearly acknowledge the filters through which you view the research, can only help you as you try to step back and make a critical analysis of the research.

Reference: Enkin, M. W. (2008) Biases in evaluating research: Are they all bad? Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care. 35(1). 31-32.


Becoming a Critical Reader: Bias, Bias Everywhere!

February 18, 2010 07:00 AM by Kristy B. Hansen, LCCE
Hmmm. You may want to look into your RSS feed. Seriously. Because the feed for your last two articles have been peppered with, ahem, um, let's just say, spam-like references to two certain prominent male-centric prescription drugs we are very tired of hearing about on TV ;-) Needless to say, I was really confused when I read your article in my RSS reader...wondered where you had taken this blog! Now I'm glad to know it's never gone anywhere (but, again, take a look at your RSS feed, because SOMETHING is wrong). Kristy

Becoming a Critical Reader: Bias, Bias Everywhere!

February 18, 2010 07:00 AM by Lori Swain
I use google reader and had the same problem as Kristy.

Becoming a Critical Reader: Bias, Bias Everywhere!

February 18, 2010 07:00 AM by Kathy
Kristy & Lori, I had the same thing (also through Reader); but on the S&S facebook page, they said that the site had been hacked. Hopefully it will be back under control soon, but I know that the owners/moderators/writers know about it. It sucks, but what can you do? {shrug}

Becoming a Critical Reader: Bias, Bias Everywhere!

February 18, 2010 07:00 AM by Nicholas Fogelson
Amy - I couldn't agree with your post more. Bias is rampant throughout research, and sadly a substantial portion of papers publish in reputable journals very biased for one reason or another. Kudos to you for pointing this out, and continuing to raise awareness about this problem.

Becoming a Critical Reader: Bias, Bias Everywhere!

February 18, 2010 07:00 AM by Amy M. Romano, RN,CNM
Two important notices: First, Andrea Lythgoe wrote this wonderful post, not me! I apologize for posting it under my name. I can't blame that error on spammers. When I was editing the post I accidentally set it up incorrectly. Second, thanks to everyone who expressed concern about the spam and for subscribing to Science & Sensibility. As Kathy mentioned, we're aware of the problem at the ITS department at Lamaze International is working on fixing it. We believe it is in fact fixed now, but we thought that yesterday before this post went out and obviously that wasn't the case. You can check our Facebook page to get updates on the status of the spam problem.

Becoming a Critical Reader: Bias, Bias Everywhere!

January 20, 2012 07:00 AM by Identifying Bias | Henrico 21
[...] How do you find information? How do you know the information you find is current, relevant, and accurate? Are there elements of bias in information you find? Teens are inundated with massive amounts of information at warp speed and, in their naivity, tend to believe most of what they read. This research based lesson is designed to help students understand how biased information is a part of every day life by giving them an opportunity to spin the same news story with two different biased perspectives or sell the same product to two different audiences. Featured Image Source [...]

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