Research: 10 tips for those addicted to studies

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If you’re a regular reader of this column you’ve read a little bit about a lot of studies. Academic research is one of journalists’ best tools to explore topics.

But it takes some skill, and great care, lest we forget that a study does not a firm conclusion make. They can be helpful to fact-check, to find a new twist on an old issue, to whet the appetite of a curious mind. It’s too tempting to use one to confirm or deny a perspective, so here are a few questions recommended for the research skeptic, from Journalist’s Resource, a curator of research based at Harvard University:

Is it peer reviewed? A study published in a peer-reviewed journal typically undergoes a detailed critique by a small number of qualified scholars. Peer-review may be imperfect, but helps ferret out lower-quality studies.

Is it published in a top-tier academic journal? Top journals are more likely to feature high-quality research, because they’re more selective and their peer-review process tends to be more rigorous.

Do other scholars trust it? One indicator of a study’s credibility is how much it’s cited in others’ research. That can take years, so new studies won’t be much cited yet. You can use the free Google Scholar search engine to find citation counts.

Who funded the research? This is a good question to check bias. Note who sponsored the research and what role, if any, a sponsor played in the study’s design and how findings are presented. Academic journals require funding source disclosures. Studies funded by organizations such as the National Science Foundation tend to be trustworthy because the funding process itself is subject to an exhaustive peer-review process.

What are the authors’ credentials? The study authors’ credentials, jobs, and how often they’ve been published can help you assess their expertise.

How old is the study? In certain fields — such as demographics or public opinion — a study that’s several years old may already be unreliable. Consider how likely it is the information would change over time.

Do the authors have a conflict of interest? Be leery of research by people or organizations who stand to gain from the findings.

What’s the sample size? For studies based on samples, larger samples generally yield more accurate results than smaller ones.

Does the study rely on survey results? Survey results can be biased if respondents were not chosen by random selection. Beware of any survey which relies on respondents who self-select (e.g., many internet-based surveys).

Are findings supported by the data? Good researchers are very cautious when describing their conclusions — because they want to convey exactly what they learned. Less credible researchers may exaggerate or minimize their findings or there may be a discrepancy between what an author claims to have found and what the data suggests.

As always, keep the skeptical mind on alert.

Finally, today’s weird word is “crepuscular” — active in the twilight.

•••

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network and a certified study addict. Contact: Sholeh@cdapress.com

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