Extracting Useful Information from Scientific Papers 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012 View Comments

The second of three blog posts addressing the question, “How can I find reliable information about autism and autism research?”

Posted by Ryan Butler, assistant director of operations for Autism Speaks Autism Genetic Resource Exchange.

In last week’s blog post, I discussed how to evaluate the credibility of Internet information about autism and autism research. I identified research reports in peer-reviewed journals as the “gold standard” of reliable, evidence-based findings. In this, the second of three blog posts, I’d like to provide you with a primer on reading and gleaning useful information from scientific articles.

Scientific journals use a standard format in their research reports. Understanding the sections within the format will help you extract useful information. A typical research article has six sections:

1. Abstract. A brief overview, or synopsis, of the study, the abstract provides an overview of the study’s design and key findings.

2. Background or Introduction. Researchers design a study to answer a research question or test an idea. In the introduction, authors typically state this question or hypothesis. In essence, a hypothesis describes what they expect their study to find. The introduction may also describe why the researchers pursued this study and related findings by other scientists. In these ways, the introduction provides context for the study’s approach and findings. In summarizing previous research, a good introduction states how the researchers expect their study to add to scientific knowledge and provide real-world benefits.

3. Methods or Methodology. The “methods” section provides a blueprint for the study’s design and procedures. Generally, it has four subsections:

Research Design. This describes the type of study. For example, was it conducted in a laboratory or a clinic? Did the study use animal models? Actual patients?

Subjects. If the study enrolled people, how many were there? What were their characteristics? Was there a comparison group? For example, in a study of autism risk, researchers may look for specific differences between a group with autism and another without.

In treatment studies, one group may receive the treatment being evaluated. Ideally their outcomes are compared with a comparison group that receives a different treatment or a placebo (dummy) treatment. In these cases, it’s important to note how the researchers assign participants to groups. Ideally, this is done in a blinded, random manner. Random assignment helps guard against biases and other influences that may cloud the treatment’s true effect.

Procedure. The procedure section explains how researchers conducted the study. It describes each step they took to set up and complete the study. It describes the kinds of information collected and the methods for collecting it. A useful and reliable study collects sufficient information to answer the research questions posed at the beginning of the study. It allows other researchers to replicate the study and see if its methods can be used in other situations.

Measures and Instruments. To produce meaningful results, studies should use standardized measures. In addition, the researchers must apply these methods in clear and consistent ways. This helps others draw reliable conclusions from the study, compare it to other studies that used the same measures, and/or repeat the experiment.

4. Results. This section is important! It describes what the study found. It lays out how the researchers analyzed the information they gathered. Typically it presents the findings in three forms: text, graphs and tables.

Many research studies use sophisticated statistical methods to extract useful information. It can be difficult for a nonscientist – or any non-statistician – to critically evaluate these methods. It’s a reasonable strategy to look at the tables and figures provided and see to what extent they reflect the outcomes described in the Discussion section that follows.

5. Discussion. Pay particular attention to this section. In the discussion, the authors should put their findings in context – hopefully, in understandable terms. They summarize what they found, offer their interpretation of findings and present their conclusions. In addition, the Discussion section should address the following:

* What were the limitations of the study? In other words, what problems might have affected the reliability of the findings? For example, was the study limited by a relatively small number of subjects? Would it have been better if the researchers could have followed the subjects longer?

* Are the findings applicable to other participants and settings? In other words, can we extend these results to other groups and other places?

In conclusion, researchers often describe the implications for future research. For example, they may recommend that others repeat their study with a larger number of subjects or with a different design. They may caution readers against over-interpreting or misinterpreting their findings. If relevant, they may suggest how their findings might be safely and appropriately used in real-life situations.

6. References. A study’s reference section represents a useful list of previously published research articles. Typically they provide backup to footnoted passages throughout the article. Each reference should contain identifying information such as article title, date, journal and authors. With this information, the reader can locate the study abstracts or full-text through an online database or library. (More on this in my first blog post.) As an added convenience, it’s becoming more common for online journal articles to hyperlink their references directly to the studies or their abstracts.

In my next and final post on finding and evaluating scientific research, I’ll discuss when to be skeptical about the claims you hear or read. Look for it on Friday.

This coming Friday, look for the next installment in this series of posts on finding, reading and evaluating evidence-based information on autism and autism research. Got more questions? Email them to us at GotQuestions@autismspeaks.org.

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