Navigating a research article can be challenging if you're not sure where to start. Yet the basic structure is almost always the same. Each article will include:
- an abstract at the beginning that summarizes the study
- an introduction or background section that gives some context for the study and explains the question researchers wanted to ask
- a method section that explains the process of conducting the study and what the researchers did
- a results section that spells out exactly what the researchers found
- and a discussion section that reflects on what the research contributes to the larger understanding of the topic, as well as what new questions are raised
If you're new to reading research or don't have a background in statistics, the introduction and discussion sections may be the best places to start to get a general description of why a research question is important and what the study found. The glossary below may also help you make sense of the jargon often found in research studies.
Recognizing Good Research
It can be hard to know whether an article is based on strong science or just represents someone's opinions. Here are a set of questions to ask as you read new research!
- Who are the authors?
- Are they experts in the field?
- Is the source or publisher well respected?
- Has the paper been peer reviewed?
- Are ethical issues identified and addressed, like financial ties or conflicts of interest?
Peer reviewed articles are reviewed by one or more people with a similar background to the authors of the work. The purpose of this process is to ensure the quality of the work. Some publications don’t rely on peer review and only on the opinion of their editor.
Assess the research question
- Are the research question(s) and the research aim clearly stated?
- Is the research question clearly linked to the context or background described?
Assess the content
- Is the literature review comprehensive, up to date, and relevant?
- Does the author write from an unbiased viewpoint, and his or her their view based on facts rather than opinions?
- Are the data collection and data analysis methods valid and reliable?
Researchers must report on the methods that were used to gather the data and describe any missing data that exists and, if there is any, provide a clear explanation why the missing data does not weaken the validity of the findings of the study. As you read the study, reflect on the variables and think of any that were not addressed. Could the missing variables poke holes in the researcher’s argument?
- Does the author have a particular theoretical viewpoint? How does the researcher’s viewpoint influence the work?
It is important to keep in mind that every author has their own perspective of how they view the world. Their theoretical perspective may determine how they design the study, collect and analyze the data, and how they evaluate the findings.
- Is the author's argument logically organized and clear to follow?
Assess the outcomes
- What are the key research findings? Do the results answer the research question?
- If statistical analysis is undertaken, are the findings statistically significant?
If the findings are statistically significant, then the researchers can confidently say that the results were due to the intervention and not by chance.
- For interventions and cohort studies, how long after the treatment did the researchers follow up with the participants? What percent of participants were still available for follow up?
The length of the time between the initial intervention and follow-up is important because it provides a snapshot of the effectiveness of the intervention over a period of time. Also, a low percent of participant follow-up can introduce bias into the results of the study.
- Are the stated assumptions and limitations of the research credible and comprehensive?
Every study will have limitations. It is important that the researchers identify these limitations and give a clear and concise explanation for how the limitations were addressed during the evaluation process of the study. Some common limitations include lack of research on a topic, lack of access to reliable data, and cultural bias.
- Are the discussion and conclusion credible and comprehensive?
- How do the findings of this research link to other papers you have read? Does it add a different perspective?
- Are the results generalizable?
For example, was the sample of the subjects used in the study comparable to the population that your program serves? Was the study conducted in a similar setting as your program? If not, how would the results differ?
Assess the potential for enhancement of your Head Start program
- In what ways are the results relevant to your program and the children and families that you serve?
- If the author is writing from a practice-based perspective, what suggestions do the findings promote for practice?
- How could you share these findings with other Head Start and early child care professionals?
Adapted from The OHS Professional as a ‘Critical Consumer’ of Research
Zardo, P., Pryor, P., (2012) The OHS Professional as a ‘critical consumer’ of research. In (HASPA) Health and Safety Professionals Alliance. The core body of knowledge for generalist OHS professionals. Tullamarine, VIC. Safety Institute of Australia.