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Health & Behavioral Sciences

Reading and Evaluating Medical Research

One of the first things to know about research papers in the sciences is the parts that make up a paper.  Almost all scientific papers will contain the following sections.

  1. Abstract - this is a short paragraph that indicates why and how the research was done, what the researchers found, and what it means.
  2. Introduction - this expands on why the research was done, or more basically, what questions about the topic the researchers are trying to answer.
  3. Methods - how the researchers conducted the experiments/studies/trials they are using to answer their research questions.  The methods also act as a guide if you wanted to reproduce the research yourself.
  4. Results - this is the "good stuff" in the paper.  This is where all the data will be presented in charts, graphs, pictures, and figures.  Look carefully at the data for things like sample size (was it 10 people or 10,000 people?), and whether the results were "significant" or non-significant", which have a very specific meaning in statistics.
  5. Discussion or Conclusion -  this is the author's interpretation of the results.  Remember this is just the author's opinion drawn from the results.  Did they answer the questions they stated in the introduction?  Did they mention any issues they had with their methodology?  Do you see any mistakes in their reasoning?

Dr. Jennifer Raff has written an excellent summary of reading the medical literature.