How to Read a Medical Research Paper
Biomedical research is a field that touches all our lives at some point or another. Through it, we have identified new ways to prevent, diagnose, or treat most of the diseases that affect us. As such it is unsurprising to come across people who have various opinions about the accuracy of these discoveries. By confusing large-scale data with personal anecdotes, by mistaking peer-reviewed research with pseudoscience, the waters are made muddy until even undecided fence-sitters become needlessly skeptical thanks to the "well we must teach the controversy!" stories.
All this has led to an unprecedented epidemic of anti-science rhetoric, where overwhelming scientific consensus is regarded with suspicion. Vaccines, genetically modified food, diet, nutrition, chemotherapy, vitamins, supplements, acupuncture, 'cupping' (thanks Michael Phelps)...the list is endless. Matters aren't helped when newspapers overhype findings to increase circulation or clicks - CANCER CURE FOUND or DIABETES VACCINE SORTED or TRUMP MANIA CURED (I wish) or whatever.
So how do
you decide for yourself, without being misled by snake-oil salesmen trying to sell their latest elixir or inexperienced journalists trying to get more clicks? Unfortunately academic jargon means reading the original research paper isn't easy unless you have a science background. Assuming the paper isn't behind a paywall and you actually get your hands on a copy, how do you begin to make sense of it? How do you know whether it's legit, so to speak?
It's all the more heartbreaking when patients, who have so much at stake, can end up endangering their health because of false promises. Open access research means more people can access research papers, but that doesn't necessarily mean the research itself is accessible.
Today I stumbled across an awesome, interactive, free to use website that guides people through the process of reading a scientific paper. It teaches you the things you should look out for, such as;
Is the paper peer-reviewed?
Who carried out the research?
Who funded it?
Was it reviewed by an ethics committee?
If it's paid for by a tobacco company and it says smoking doesn't cause lung cancer then you should rightly be very suspicious!
It also teaches you the difference between a review or meta analysis vs an individual study, and whether it's good for basing decisions on. It even goes on to explain clinical studies, and how you should evaluate them before deciding actually no, organic kale juice can't cure cancer...
Check it out - http://www.understandinghealthresearch.org/