Sunday, 2 March 2014

Happy as a pig in mud - a beginner's guide to using research in discussions

A blog post has been doing the rounds lately entitled "Don't Get Mud On Your Face! Citing Research In Discussions", which lists some very sensible and thorough rules to follow when considering citing research in a discussion. Presumably in support of a point you are making, which is generally the accepted purpose of citing research in discussions. In the humble opinion of this young scientist, the list of rules is a very good list and I follow most of the rules when I am reading papers. But reading papers and citing research is part of my job that I have been formally trained to do over many years. Maybe the average person with a curious mind and Google Scholar at their fingertips can get a lot out of simply dipping their toes into research literature without being expected to dive in and swim a lap or two. So here is a friendly guide I have put together for beginners, hobbyists, and those that are just up for a paddle and not much more. Science is for everyone! And I heartily encourage anyone from any field to go poking around primary literature.

Science is for everyone! (Image source)

1) Chasing down the original article is indeed an excellent first step. Reporters and journalists are notorious for slightly mangling published research in the retelling. If you cannot get hold of the original article, or you don't understand much of it, that's okay, all is not lost. Knowing something about the credibility of the reporter will help you. If they have good credentials, such as being a scientist themselves, that is a very good thing. Ideally, they would have university level qualifications in the field they are reporting on. Also, where is it being reported? An online magazine or blog dedicated to reporting science is better than a general news site, but be aware that even dedicated science journalism sources tend to twist things around a bit to make it sound more significant, exciting, and potentially game-changing than it really is. Their job is to get people to read it. If it's a personal blog, be aware that the writer may have an agenda they are pushing.

2) If you can track down the original article and you don't understand it, DON'T PANIC. And don't give up there. A well-written paper that is easy to read is a rare gem. Most scientists are appalling writers, and some fields are thick with jargon. Back when I was a wee little undergrad, I read papers in the order they were written. I recommend this for beginners. The Abstract is a good place to start. The Introduction will put the study in context. Some Introductions do this well and some do them terribly, so don't be dismayed if you still don't really get it. Methods can be heavy going. It's possible I will be lynched for this, because to people like me this section of the paper is crucial, but if you can't easily follow it, just skim it. It's unlikely that a beginner will get a whole lot out of it anyway. Same for the Results, although give the graphs some attention. The Discussion is where things get interesting and you will probably get the most use out of it. It will outline the important results and tell you whether they were expected and offer explanations for why they differed from expected if they did, as well as hopefully identifying limitations with the study. If you just understand a few key points from the paper, that is okay. It doesn't mean you are too ignorant to present those points to other people. Just acknowledge that you are a beginner and offer it up politely rather than beating someone over the head with it.

3) Keep your critical thinking cap on and step away from your biases. It could be the hardest bit about reading papers. Try to remember you are not reading it to ultimately find proof for an argument you hold dear. That is not how science works. Science provides evidence in support of ideas. The literature often isn't clear, particularly in behaviour. If you look, you will probably find papers that seem to support things you don't believe. Don't be afraid of them. If you are trying to argue a point, knowing about those papers that seem to refute it is a good thing! And sometimes it will change your mind. If you are brave enough. Below is the first of a series of helpful little shorts on critical thinking by TechNyou that can be found on YouTube. They are really good!

4) One reference does not an argument make. For all that science is about gathering evidence objectively and testing hypotheses with as little bias as possible, it's unlikely that a single paper will solve the issue once and for all. Science is a cumulative process after all, and it's ridiculously hard to test all variables at once. 

5) Lastly, a few tips about critiquing peer reviewed research:


This is where you generally need a good, solid background in the field with several years of practical experience in research behind you. Be aware that the study was done by scientists and then judged by other scientists to be suitable for publication. Do you know better than 3+ scientists and a journal editor or two? Think very carefully before you decide you are. It is true that there is plenty of poor science out there, but don't be too hasty with your cynicism. 

* Remember that a single study can only really examine one slice of the pie, but that's okay. As long as the authors know that there is a pie and have some idea what it looks like and therefore some idea of which slice they have and what is not in it. 

* Statistics can do some clever things and can make up for some tricksy variables that are hard to pin down. Statistics can also find patterns in data that are not obvious otherwise. 

* Scientific methods have to be as standardised as possible. We can't, for example, apply rules for one dog but change them for another simply because they don't work as well for that dog for whatever reason. To make comparisons or find patterns, all dogs need to have been exposed to the same treatment or procedure. Individual differences is not something that is especially compatible with statistics, but that doesn't mean scientists have never noticed them. It just means it's very hard to do anything about it. We're working on it, though!

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