How to Read a Research Study

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008
Photo Credit: NinJA999

Image Credit: ninja999

Do you ever wonder how they do it? How do fitness experts get their hands on a research study and break it down for the layman to understand? Do they know something we don’t? Do they really just print out 15 or more pages of a long, methodical study and read it word for word, first page to last and understand it?

For example, a new diet study from the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) compared low fat, low carb and the Mediterranean diet.

Here’s 2 excellent examples of fitness experts, breaking down just this study for you, reading far beyond the abstracts or the studies quick conclusions.

Sites That Got It Right:

  • Diet-Blog
  • Burnthefatblog

They like us, use a formula to read beyond the headlines, media frenzy and comprehend the article.

Almost all the reporters got it wrong, wrong WRONG! So did most of the gloating low carb forumites and bloggers. Come to think of, almost everyone interpreted this study wrong. Some valuable insights came out of this study, but almost everyone missed them because they were too busy believing what the news said or defending their own cherished belief systems …

- Tom Venuto

I Am Going to Show You How:

  • how to read a research study
  • know if the expert you are following has read the study and comprehended the study
  • be able to spot experts who use this formula from the others who skim and jump to conclusions

Why This Matters to You:

If you aren’t interested in learning how to read one, that’s fine. But make sure the guru you follow is READING and interpreting the study correctly based on the whole study.

Let’s get started with how to read a research study!

Structure of a Research Study:

Any professional research study contains the following sections:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References
  • Sources (sometimes the references and sources are combined as a single source of citations)

You may find that some research studies section names vary just a little, e.g. Methods could be Research Methods or Methodology. If you have in your hand a “research study” that doesn’t contain at least 90% of the above aforementioned sections, you don’t have a research article. If you are reading an article or blog post that doesn’t summarize the same sections above for you, you don’t have a summarized research study.
See the Section Definitions below if you aren’t familiar with what each section contains.

How to Read a Research Study: It’s Not First Page to Last!

My first inclination is to print out the whole thing and read it from beginning to end. Usually by the end, I’m confused, bored and tired. You don’t read the first to last page unless you’re already familiar with the topic.

The Right Way to Read a Research Study:

1. Start with the abstract for an overview. Reminder: Do not draw conclusions. Here’s where many people if they even bother to view the source stop. They reach a conclusion after viewing just the overview! That’s wrong and it usually leads to distribution of misinformation. You’d be surprised but most media outlets only read the title! Or the conclusion only and then report that to the masses as fact.

2. Read the first paragraph or so of the Introduction to get a general idea of the topic. Go to the last paragraph to read the hypothesis if any.

3. Skim the Discussion to see how the study turned out and any results.

4. Time for the details! Head back to the middle part and read the Methods section carefully and plan on re-reading this a few times to digest it all.

5. Read the Results section. You can use the Discussion section for clarity on what the statistics mean. However, don’t get bogged down in the details of the Methods or Results section. Just obtain an idea of how the hypothesis was tested.

6. Read the Discussion section closely. Pay attention to details.

7. Read the whole study, first page to last. Re-read it again for the best comprehension.

What The Section Means:

ABSTRACT:
A summary of the main points of the article: here’s where you’ll find the purpose of the study, the hypothesis, the methods used, who was studied, and the conclusion or the findings. While you should read this first to get an general overview, a common mistake made is to draw conclusions just from the abstract.

INTRODUCTION:
This section contains relevant background information, contexts and the predictions to be tested (the hypothesis). It may contain some references to previous studies related to the same topic.

METHODS:
The approach taken in the study is in the methods section. Here you should find detailed information about the research methods used. The questions asked the setup of the study, ages of the subject, number of subjects, procedures, testing conditions, and the approach that will be taken for data analysis.

RESULTS:
Data is summarized in this section, relationships between variables and any differences in the groups should be reported in this section. The analysis should reflect something about the predictions that were described in the Introduction section. Comparisons might be included to explain findings and to explore any unforeseen findings.

DISCUSSION:
You won’t find numbers or many stats here but you will find them summarized in a narrative form. How the study coincides with the hypothesis and any previous studies on the subject are discussed in this section. Suggestions for the need for further studies on this topic frequently are found in the discussion section.

REFERENCES (Sources):
A listing of the sources cited in the research study such as articles, books and possibly other studies. This could include sources not directly used to are still relevant to the research topic at hand. A little trick is to use the reference list to find many other sources on the topic.

Now that you understand how to read a research study here’s some practice for you.

YOUR HOMEWORK:

Use this diet study from the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) compared low fat, low carb and the Mediterranean diet. Remember, almost everybody got this one wrong! Let’s see if you read the study if you find the same conclusions.

QUESTION:

Do you think the following headlines are valid?

  • Study Tips Scales in Atkins Diets Favor: Low Carb Regimen Better Than Low Fat Diet For Weight And Cholesterol, Major Study Shows.
  • Low-Carb and Low-Fat Diets Face Off
  • The Never-Ending Diet Wars
  • Low Carb Beats Low Fat in Diet Duel
  • Atkins Diet is Safe and Far More Effective Than a Low-Fat One, Study Says
  • Unrestricted Low-Carb Diet Wins Hands Down

 
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