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Reading Science Critically. Debi A. LaPlante, PhD Associate Director, Division on Addictions. First Sources. Reading primary sources can be daunting Complexity of information Researchers are marketing their ideas and findings Time Benefits Current findings

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Reading science critically

Reading Science Critically

Debi A. LaPlante, PhD

Associate Director, Division on Addictions

First sources
First Sources

  • Reading primary sources can be daunting

    • Complexity of information

    • Researchers are marketing their ideas and findings

    • Time

  • Benefits

    • Current findings

    • Promotes and enables replication

    • Data (often)

What is the purpose of scientific papers
What is the Purpose of Scientific Papers?

  • Concisely report information, ideas, and innovation

  • Build the common knowledge-base

  • Contribute to scientific debate

  • Resume building

Why is important to read science critically
Why is important to read science critically?

  • Peer-review is state of the art, but imperfect

    • Author bias

    • Unintentional errors

    • Conflicts of interest

    • Author self-marketing

More challenges to understanding and evaluating scientific literature
More challenges to understanding and evaluating scientific literature

  • Writing by scientists, not writers

  • Marketing: Trojan Ns

  • Marketing: Assertive Sentence Titles

  • Statistical versus Clinical significance

  • Publication bias

    • Tough to publish negative results

Finding articles
Finding Articles literature

  • Citation lists of published papers

  • Select journals’ table of contents

  • Specialized search engines (e.g., Medline; PsycInfo)

  • Web searches (e.g., Google Scholar)

  • Personal referrals

  • Citation indexes (e.g., Social Science Citation Index)

Components of scientific papers
Components of Scientific Papers literature

  • Abstract

  • Introduction

    • Hypotheses or research questions

  • Methods

    • Participants

    • Materials

    • Protocol

  • Results

  • Discussion

    • Interpretation of results

    • Advances

    • Limitations

  • Conclusion

How to get through a paper
How to get through a paper literature

  • Strategy depends on expertise

  • General approach:

    • Don’t read straight through

    • Read title and abstract

    • Skim Intro

    • Read results

    • Track back to Methods

    • Read Discussion

Resources literature

  • Literature summary services



  • Greenhalgh (1997)

  • Zaccai (2004)

Is the study original
Is the study original? literature

  • Does the research advance what we know?

    • Bigger, longer, more substantial?

    • More rigorous?

    • New population?

    • Will it inform or change clinical practice?

Greenhalgh (1997)

Whom is the study about
Whom is the study about? literature

  • What was the recruitment method?

    • Representative and generalizable?

      • Refusal rate? Homogeneity? Random?

  • What are the inclusion criteria?

    • Disorder severity

  • What are the exclusion criteria?

    • Co-existing illness, other medication, English, literate

  • How “true to life” is the study setting?

Greenhalgh (1997)

Is the design sensible
Is the design sensible? literature

  • What was done?

    • Appropriate comparison groups?

  • What was the measured outcome?

  • Is there a sufficient description of the design?

Greenhalgh (1997)

Ambiguous research methods
Ambiguous Research Methods literature

Greenhalgh (1997)

Is systematic bias avoided or minimized
Is systematic bias avoided literatureor minimized?

  • Designs

    • Randomized trials

    • Non-randomized trials

    • Cohort studies

    • Case studies

  • Methods

    • Blind assignment and assessment

    • Validated measurement tools

    • Control confounding (e.g., baseline group differences)

Greenhalgh (1997)

Reading science critically

Autumn Season literature

Falling Leaves

Student arrival to campus

Confounder of the Season-Falling Leaves relationship

Are the results credible
Are the results credible? literature

  • Is there a sufficient sample size?

  • Are the results clinical significant?

  • How long is follow up?

    • Is the follow-up appropriate to the outcome? (e.g., post-operative pain versus pediatric growth patterns)

    • What is retention rate?

Greenhalgh (1997)

Take away messages
Take Away Messages literature

  • First Source publications provide important benefits to science and practice

  • Unintentional and intentional errors occur

  • Readers should read critically and not merely take such publications at face value