Why Research is Important: Understanding Research Articles Part I | Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation (AAMDSIF) Return to top.

Why Research is Important: Understanding Research Articles Part I

Introductory image: Runner Poses with Jet Liftoff in the Background

The medical care we enjoy today is built upon decades  of effort by physicians, researchers, and other medical professionals investigating the causes of, and potential treatments for disease. Insights provided by past and current medical research promise to lessen the impact of aplastic anemia, MDS, and PNH. As science continues to unveil the molecular workings that underpin disease, we will see profound changes in the approach to treating these rare diseases.

In last month’s article “Why Research is Important | Bench-to-Bedside, we learned about the benefits of scientific research and also the timeline associated with moving things through the researchprocess. This research is critical to everything else that follows in medicine. Once it is known how diseases are caused, ways to prevent them can be discovered. Translational medical research seeks to take the medical discoveries that have been made in a laboratory setting and translate them into medicalprocedures used by physicians.

These  articles will help you understand more about reading—research articles.  Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process from reading an article in a blog or newspaper. Not only do you read the sections in a different order than they're presented, but you also have to take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go look up other papers in order to understand some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first, but this will go much faster as you gain experience.

First we want to familiarize you with the sections commonly found in research articles. 

The abstract is a summary of the paper. It usually highlights the main objective of the author(s)’ research, provides the key results of their experiments, and gives an overview of the  their conclusions. Reading the abstract will help you decide if the article was what you were looking for, without spending a long time reading the entire  paper. Abstracts are usually accessible for free either online at journal websites or in scientific literature databases (name a few?)

The introduction gives background information about the paper’s topic, and sets out the specific questions to be addressed by the authors. Reading the introduction lets you know if you are ready to read the rest of the paper; if the introduction doesn't make sense to you or is hard to understand then the rest of the paper won't either. If you find yourself confused by the introduction, try going to other sources for information about the topic before you tackle the rest of the paper. Good sources can include  textbooks, patient guides, online tutorials, reviews, or other explanations.  If after trying all these sources you're still confused, it may be worth asking your health care provider, advocacy organization, or someone with a background in the research for help.

Materials and Methods
The materials and methods section gives the technical details of how the experiments were conducted.  Reading the methods section is helpful in understanding exactly what the authors did. This section also serves as a "how-to" manual if you're interested in carrying out similar experiments, or even in repeating the same experiments as the authors did. The materials and methods section is most commonly placed directly after the introduction.

The results section is  an important part of a primary research article.  This section contains all the data from the experiments and the  figures contain the majority of the data. The accompanying text contains written descriptions of the parts  of data the authors feel were most critical. So to get the most out of the results section, make sure to spend ample time thoroughly looking at all the graphs, pictures, and tables, and reading their accompanying legends.

The discussion section is the authors' opportunity to give you their opinions. It is where they draw conclusions about the results. They may choose to put their results in the context of previous findings and offer theories or new hypotheses. Or the authors may comment on new questions and avenues of exploration that their results give rise to. The purpose of discussion sections in papers is to allow the exchange of ideas between scientists.

Throughout the article, the authors will refer to information from other papers. These citations are all listed in the references section, sometimes referred to as the bibliography. This makes the reference section useful for broadening your own literature search. If you're reading a paragraph in the current paper and want more information on the content, you should always try to find and read the articles cited in that paragraph.

Part II will provide you with some tips on how to read research articles.