Reading ResearchBy: Sara Jahnke, Ph.D.
Using research requires reading it – an often challenging effort given the commitment of time and attention. Research is written in highly technical language, often without definitive, actionable outcomes. While it can make sure research difficult to apply, it also allows for research to continuously improve and refine our understanding of the world around us. This article and the video above are a primer on reading peer-reviewed research.Where to Find Research
To read it, first you must find it. FSTAR is designed to help your search. You can search by keyword, material types, or browse all of our research studies. Be sure to take a look at our Featured Studies to give you a leg up on applying research outcomes.
There are several other sources of resources: PubMed and Google Scholar can also help you find research by keywords. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives has also compiled a database of references from the academic literature, sorted according to the Initiatives.
Once you’ve found a study on the topic you are looking for, see what articles the authors cite in their reference section. You may find more research to help you. Some databases also provide similar references to your search.Journals
Journals are available in print and/or online. Some provide free or limited use access online) while others are by subscription only. These subscriptions are often held through libraries and universities; try the National Fire Academy's library. You also can email the contact author directly to request a copy of the publication. Copyright agreements often limit the ability of authors to post the full articles online for public use.
Most journal publish only peer-reviewed research that undergoes a specific review process. Authors submit their manuscript which is reviewed by 2-3 other scientists. The peer scientists typically review and critique the manuscript in detail and return comments to the editors. Editors either reject, accept or request revisions to the initial manuscript. If the authors receive a “revise and resubmit”, they have the opportunity to revise their manuscript in accordance with the reviewers’ comments and/or respond to the reviewer concerns. The editors can then either accept or reject the revised work. The importance of peer review is that scientists outside the research team have read, evaluated and approved the publication before it is ever published. This ensures that the resulting manuscript is scientifically sound, quality work that is usually free of major defects.Date
The date of the publication is important because of how quickly science changes. To be up to date on current data, it is useful to refer to and use more recent publications (e.g. approximately the last 10 years).Authors
Most publications have a corresponding author who provides their contact information. Feel free to contact the authors with questions – most are very open to hearing from those who are consuming their research. Author affiliations also are included. If you find certain publications to be useful, try looking up the author as most authors publish within a topic area and have more than one relevant publication on a topic. The order of the authors also matters; the first author is typically the primary or lead author. Depending on the tradition of the field, the author in the last position is often the senior author and/or the principal investigator of the study.Abstract
The abstract (which is usually available online) has a summary of the research and is similar to an Executive Summary found in fire service reports. Typically the abstract includes a brief summary of what is already known about the topic and what is missing from the literature. Next, there is a brief description of the methods used and information about the sample participating in the study. Results highlight the most important or key findings of the study. Finally, the end of the abstract usually summarizes the conclusions, provides future direction, or provides information about why the results are important.Introduction
In the introduction, the authors summarize what is already available about the topic in the peer reviewed literature. Typically, the introduction ends with the research question being studied and/or hypotheses about what the authors expect to find. Introductions are a great place to find additional resources. Data presented should be referenced with the original research where it was published. Check the reference section to find the original study results.Methods
The methods section provides important information about how the study was done and who the participants are.
- Research Design: There are several different types of research designs and some are stronger designs than others. For instance, a cross-sectional design asks firefighters questions at one point in time and statistically examines the relationship between variables. Cohort studies follow people across time and measure domains at multiple time points. Randomized controlled trials randomly assign participants to groups and provide different treatments to each group. Comparisons are made between the participants in each group to see if groups respond differently. Some studies are reviews of the literature. A meta-analysis is a study that statistically combines the findings of several different studies and weights the findings based how large the sample size of the study was (a small study would receive less weight than a large study). Outcomes are standardized and combined so conclusions can be made about the literature in general on a topic.
- Participants: It is important to know who participated in the study so you can identify how widely the findings can be generalized. For instance, if the study participants were all males, you would need to be careful assuming the results would be the same for women. If the firefighters were just from the South, it could be that the findings would be different in another area of the country. Sample size (typically noted as “N” or “n” depending on whether the sample is the whole group or just a portion of the whole group) also is an important thing to look at. The larger the study is, the more confident you can be in the findings. The response rate also is important because it tells you how many people of the ones solicited chose to participate. If the response rate is low, you need to be more concerned about bias in the findings. It could be that only those interested in the topic being studied participated and are different than those who didn’t choose to participate. The higher the response rate, the more likely it is the findings are representative of the actual population.
- Measures: This section provides information about how the domains being assessed were measured – what instruments were used, whether the questions were created by the authors or from existing surveys, etc. It is typically preferred that scientists used existing measures that have been tested for reliability (the results are the same if you ask and re-ask the questions) and validity (the questions are measuring what they are trying to measure).
- Approach to Statistical Analysis: Usually once an article has made it to the published literature, you can be confident that the statistics conducted are appropriate. Many editorial boards include statistical experts who review any questionable statistical analysis. More important than understanding the ins-and-outs of the statistical tests is knowing how to interpret them. Most commonly, statistics are reported with p-values. The p-value is the probability that a result would occur by chance. For instance, if p=.04, there is only a 4% chance that the results found would have occurred at random. P-values less than .05 are typically considered statistically significant by scientists.
In the results section, the authors outline the findings of each of the tests they have done. Results often are presented in both paragraph form and in table form. Table titles typically explain what data is being presented and usually statistically significant findings are noted.Discussion
The beginning of the discussion section typically presents a summary of the main findings of the study in plain language. This section usually also includes strengths and limitations to the study (every study has limitations so they don’t necessarily make the study less useful, but explain what should be kept in mind while interpreting results) and future directions (perceptions of the authors about what steps should be taken next and what other research questions remain).About the Author
Sara A Jahnke Ph.D. is the director of the Center for Fire, Rescue and EMS Health Research at the National Development and Research Institutes Inc. Dr. Jahnke has served as the principal investigator of two large-scale studies of the health and readiness of the U.S. fire service funded by the Department of Homeland Security and a qualitative study of health and wellness with a national sample of fire service representatives from the American Heart Association. She serves as the principal investigator of a study on the health of women firefighters. She also serves as a co-investigator of several studies focused on fitness, nutrition and health behaviors in both firefighters and military populations. She completed her doctorate in psychology with a health emphasis at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and the American Heart Associations' Fellowship on the Epidemiology and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease.