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Research Perspectives

Reading Research Critically:

Ten Top Questions to Ask By Roanne Thomas

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mpact factors, reliability, generalizability, transferability – what are they and what do they mean? There are many terms associated with research evaluation and they can often be confusing, especially since researchers themselves do not always agree on the meaning of these words or their significance! Research is a social activity, but interpreting research results is ultimately up to the individual reader. It is widely recognized that all research projects have limitations and weaknesses, but patients and health professionals still need some ways to make sense of what they are reading. There are many guides to reading critically, but the following ten questions might help to guide your own evaluation of research.

Research is a social activity, but interpreting research results is ultimately up to the individual reader.

1. When was the research published?

More recent research is not necessarily better: it depends on the topic. Generally, however, researchers tend to draw upon the last five years in order to summarize what is known about a contemporary issue. In under-researched areas, such as lymphedema, you might want to consider articles written

in the last ten years in order to form an opinion about a specific topic.

2. Who has written the article? Which discipline(s) do the authors represent? Have you read other articles by the author(s)? A surgeon will have a different perspective on lymphedema from a sociologist. Multidisciplinary teams will be able to provide a more holistic view of the research question. More seasoned researchers will be building on a program of research, but you shouldn’t disregard what new researchers have to say as all disciplines, including the sciences, are continually evolving. Watch for bias that may result from a relationship between the researchers and the funder of the research (e.g., drug company).

3. What are the main arguments in the article? You will find a summary of the research results in the abstract. Consider whether or not these are new or not. If they are new, how convincing are they and are they credible? Do they reflect your clinical practice or your experiences as a patient? Another important element to determine is whether the research is relevant to you or your practice.

4. Where was the research conducted? Multi-site projects are usually regarded more highly because they involve a number of researchers and participants. Because they include a wider range

Roanne Thomas, PhD is a Canada Research Chair in Qualitative Health Research with Marginalized Populations in the School of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on the psychosocial impact of chronic illnesses, such as lymphedema. She is also Chair of the CLF Research Working Group.

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of participants, these studies are often more easily generalized to the wider population. Consider also: What was the exact location of the research? For instance, it may be difficult to replicate the findings of an exercise study where participants were closely supervised in a health club. These results might not be transferable to a home-based exercise program without supervision.

5. Who are the research participants? What are the similarities and differences between them and your clients or yourself? Are they from one location only? As an example, access to lymphedema treatment varies widely and participants living in rural areas may face different challenges than those who live in urban areas. It’s also important to pay attention to the sample size. In qualitative (or descriptive) studies, sample sizes may be smaller and that is appropriate. In that case, you need to consider whether or not the results are meaningful. Quantitative (statistics) studies may use larger sample sizes, but in all studies, there should be some discussion as to how the sample was selected. For instance, sometimes Summer 2013

Pathways Summer 2013  
Pathways Summer 2013