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How do we know what is “more real” or accurate research?

Let’s face it, research articles can be a pain. Especially when there are so many contradictory findings.

How do we know what is “more real” or accurate research?

What can really be annoying is just when we think we got a handle on some topic (e.g., which probiotic is best for x condition) – a different research article refutes the findings (results), and we find ourselves led back into a new maze that somehow demolishes what has been established.

And at times, with such rudeness, putting down the research and the scientists we thought were so right on.

Been there, done that – and truthfully – it is too easy for scholars and researchers to critique and demolish others’ research, but at what cost? We’ll talk about the political games in research later. 

In the process of maturing into my own in the research and academic field, I have learned that no matter what, there are always some good ‘stuff’ to learn, even when I think the research itself is flawed or that the scientists are not honest about their “conflict of interest,” which too often colors their findings (see Part I).

So, last week I asked:

What do we do with research articles that claim one thing and others who supposedly checked the same thing – and claim opposite results?  

I discussed the theories and biases of scientists, how their environment (workplace) affects the findings, and started to get into the need to understand the historical part of the research.

The field of science may be complex but once you know how to look at research with more understanding of what goes on behind the scenes, contradictions become interesting and even fun!

Let’s talk about the Introduction or discussion sections within a research article, and the rich history that scientists review and, within this historical data, they situate their own research and explain why their project is so necessary.

But with this beautiful historical data, comes a very large issue:

The introduction which explains the history of a specific topic in the research field is actually the scientists' view (in fact, biased view). 

I know, I know… scientists are not supposed to have biases or views that affect their investigations. Yet, we all have views and biases, and scientists are, after all, human beings.

And we discover the scientists’ biases by the specific research articles they choose for the introduction. Let me explain.

Scientists have a certain affinity for the community they are part of – the scientists, universities, and the kind of hypotheses and topics they like to explore, follow, and be part of.  

In other words, they specifically chose the articles they want to discuss, they cite them as important in the advancement of the topic in general, and then create the ‘reason’ for the next step – a research (their research) that will further develop this area of interest.

This creates a host of questions, and maybe even uncomfortable questions, as we do like to think of science in general as unbiased and impartial, or objective. Does this now sound more complicated?

Isn’t science supposed to be about finding facts, or the truth?

Let me bring it closer to home:  Let’s say that you need to teach a class on a certain topic, and in preparation, you read all around your topic, but of course, you do have an idea of what you believe is true and correct about this certain topic. In fact, you resonate with certain articles and books you read, and do not resonate with others. So, you chose the materials very carefully, the ones you like, to create a certain story-arc.

Fair enough.

Next, you “situate” your subject matter within that “stream of thought” so you can easily explain why your topic is important and how it fits into a greater field of knowledge. 

This is exactly what we do as scholars and scientists. It is how we all learn. We chose our materials that we resonate with, that fits within what we want to explore, and that in essence becomes our chosen view.

In the introduction, researchers give many citations – as I do in my articles: I cite the name of the lead scientist (or two names), attach the et al. (et alia or all others) meaning that it is a group of scientists that were involved in the research, and add the year the research was published.  

All these articles that examined and arrived at certain conclusions on various points within a field or two, slowly lead us (hopefully) into the next needed area to examine.

Two points to make here to make your life much easier (on one hand) and a bit more difficult (on the other hand). I did promise fun!

This is where the rubber meets the road or where the work really happens.

First, a scientist is always within a certain field of research, and are therefore aware of most of the scientists that are mentioned.

But what about the rest of us that are in a different field (e.g., medicine), and need to know about recent discoveries? Do you need to read all these articles in the introduction?

Yes and no. It depends if you generally know and trust the scientists conducting the research, and whether your knowledge encompasses a variety of topics within this field.

If you do not belong to the research community in that field, then it is very difficult to know which of the citations (the other scientists) are trustworthy. Many are and at the same time, some are not. See the dilemma here?

My suggestion: if it is a very important issue for you, randomly select some of the articles mentioned, and check the scientists themselves: which institution they belong to, what else have they researched, who funds their research.

Second, reading most articles’ introduction is not a linear experience of a good story telling.

In fact, as it is at times a pain for you to read their articles - I assure you - it is even more of a pain for them to write the articles.

Moreover, and this will make you feel much better, many scientists go to other articles, books, and research to write those tremendously complex descriptions of certain mechanisms. You often find these maddening detailed explanations in the introduction or in the discussion.

Keep in mind that too often, some of these complicated explanations are also complex for some of the scientists who do not specialize in that particular small sized pool of knowledge. But they have to swim in this pool for the sake of their work, and hence rely on the knowledge of others.   

Oh yes, there are those genius scientists and scholars that know how to explain processes and mechanisms so beautifully, but they are truly rare.

My suggestion: never get caught in the story-arc. Simply know that the scientists need to create a need for their research, and that they want to show you that they have a handle on what has been going on in that ‘stream’ (see Part I) - they know the history of the topic.

Lastly, it is good to be aware that there is another problem in the Introduction that is hard to reconcile.

Often, scientists are just citing either acceptable scientists that have been cited by others or new ones that go along with what they want to prove.

But, since many of these quick summaries in the introduction (the citations) are taken out of the original context, they lose much of their clarity, and can become more convoluted within a new context all together. That can indeed be frustrating.

Do you now understand more clearly how we can get into trouble believing science can be concise? And the reason we do have so much contradictions in research?

It is actually good news! We need the contradictions and arguments to advance science. 

My suggestion: You may as well Relax into the article if the topic is important to you. Take a little time and check out a few of the mentioned articles mentioned in the introduction or discussion. Otherwise, treat the article as a piece of knowledge, quickly go over it, so you do know what the scientific conversation is all about. 

I personally love the introduction since it shows me exactly how the scientists are thinking – their view and biases - It is how I approach their research.  In other words, I compare my biases with theirs – and my knowledge with their knowledge. Are they teaching me something new? Are others in agreement with their findings? Are there any arguments around this topic? Letters to the editors? So many excellent questions to ask…  

Next week, we’ll dive into some of my experiences in learning to read research, that’s first year PhD studies, and how we can further clarify reading contradictory research.

References 

  • Verschuren, P., Doorewaard, H., & Mellion, M. (2010). Designing a research project (Vol. 2). The Hague: Eleven International Publishing. Article
  • Definition of a research project: Rutgers university: Article
  • Gray, D. E. (2021). Doing research in the real world. sage. Book  

 

Yours as always,

Dohrea 

Dohrea Bardell, PhD                                                                                     President                                                                                               BioImmersion Inc.

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 Check out this reference that has been cited by 10,567 scholars!

Gray, D. E. (2021). Doing research in the real world. sage. Book 

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