The Basics of Peer-Reviewed Research: Finding Reliable and Accurate Information

Limited are the days of searching for information in books at the library. Though some college professors still require it, the majority of research and information seeking is now online. It’s more common to see people searching online databases as opposed to combing through bookshelves.

Having nearly unlimited information at our fingertips is amazing. No longer do we have to wait for an updated textbook or printed newspaper. Of course, with increased information comes the added biases as well. Much of the information published has an agenda. This is especially true in the health and fitness industry.

Information in the health and fitness field is often muddled with opinions and half-truths. How do you know what to believe? While there are some fitness bloggers, coaches, trainers, and content creators who produce quality content, reliable information is hidden behind articles with titles like “Drop Two Sizes in Just Two Weeks!” and “Flatten Your Belly: The New Water Sipping Trick That Crushes Hunger!”

So where do you start? How do you sift through the catchy, unrealistic headlines and find the information that will not only help you on your health and fitness journey, but the information that is research-based.

What are peer-reviewed research articles?

One place I always start is by reading peer-reviewed research articles. Peer-reviewed research articles are written by scientists in the field and then checked thoroughly by other, unrelated professionals of the same field. After a series of feedback and revisions, the study is then published in a well respected journal or online publication. It is important to note that not all articles meet the high standards. Many are denied due to flaws in the research, failure to back up claims with evidence, or missing acknowledgment/advancement of other work in the field.

Interpreting these types of papers is a skill and it not learned overnight. Many of the researchers are writing to an audience of their peers. This leads to advanced vocabulary and an assumed understanding of basic study design and knowledge of the subject. It’s helpful to have an internet tab open and be able to look up a word of concept as you are reading an article for the first time. In addition, if you are not familiar with a topic, it may be easiest for you to begin with a research review as opposed to a dedicated research article.

Research Article vs. Research Review

A research article is centered around a single topic and outlines the introduction, methods, discussion, and conclusion of a single study. We’ll discuss each section in greater detail later on in the article. These peer-reviewed sources go into depth about the design of the study, the expected hypothesis, and the outcome of the study. On a single, specified topic, it gives you a detailed picture of what was studied so that you are able to then apply that information.

On the other hand, a research review is also written by professionals in the field and is a collection of research study summaries. The authors analyze each study, and the results, and then draw over arching conclusions, form relationships between studies, and give recommendations for further research based on their assessment. The broad overview and summarization allow the reader to understand general concepts and conclusions of each study, without the scientific outline and details.

Although a research review is a good way to grasp an overall understand of a topic, a research article might be necessary if you are focusing a specific population of people, such as pregnant females or collegiate level track and field athletes. Although a research article provides great detail on a specific area, it can be confusing and often the main point is hidden among the wide breadth of information. This is especially true if you’re just beginning to read research articles. However, neither can exist without the other and both are equally important to developing a well-rounded understanding of a topic.

Sections of a Peer-Reviewed Research Study

A research article is broken up into six main sections. Each adds vital information to the understanding of the concept of the study as well as the study itself. These sections include: the introduction, title/authors/sources of support/acknowledgement, structured abstract, the methods, results and discussion, and the authors suggestion for the direction of future research.

Title, Authors, Sources of Support, Acknowledgment

Fairly straightforward – this will tell you who wrote the study and the support for it. Certain researchers may specialize in a particular area, so if you enjoy a study, it may be a good starting point to continue your research by searching for other works by the same authors or contributing authors. More importantly, this study often indicates any conflict of interest. Although it’s not always a negative, let’s use a supplement study as an example. If you find that the supplement being studied was provided by that company and one of the contributors works for the same company, it may be a red flag. Companies don’t necessarily look to publish studies in which their product will be cast in a negative light.

Structured Abstract

The structured abstract is an overview of each of the parts that follow: methods, results, and discussion. It gives the reader a glimpse of what is to come and what they will learn more about. This is often set up with sub-headings for background, objective, design, results, and conclusion. This allows the reader to scan quickly. Quick and easy, this summary of the paper allows the reader to explore if it is a relevant article to what she’s trying to research.

Introduction

The introduction is similar to that of any paper you’ve written in school or for a work presentation. It tells the reader a little bit about the study. Often, it will outline the main point as well as the authors hypothesis. The hypothesis is what scientists were expecting to find prior to completing any experimentation. This will either be proven or disproven over the course of the study.

Methods

In greater detail, this section clearly explains how the study was conducted. It will include how participants were selected, demographics about the participants, and explanations of why the researchers chose the population they did. They will also detail what sample groups the participants were split into and how researchers made the choice to do that. It will explain all procedures followed in the study and often why those specific procedures were followed. This will include how variables were controlled and measured, how any data was taken and analyzed, and specific procedures of statistical analysis that were used.

Points to pay attention to in the methods:

  • Who does the sample population include? – Suppose you’re trying to assist a middle-age, fairly sedentary, woman so you look up the latest research on resistance training vs. cardio for weight loss. Reading research where the sample population is college-age, male, athletes, isn’t always going to relate to that client. Try finding research with a similar population to who you’re trying to help.
  • Was is a single- or double-blind study? – This is important, specifically in supplement studies. Not knowing if you are taking the real supplement or a placebo will account for the placebo affect.
    • Single-blind: The researchers know what group the participant is in, but the participant does not.
    • Double-blind: Neither the researchers or the participant know their sample group.
  • Was any data collection taken in the most accurate manner? – If you’re measuring body fat %, the error for human measurement in a skinfold caliper test is much higher than that of a BODPOD.

Results and Discussion

The results section will give you the reports of the data gathered, as well as the statistical analysis. Tables, graphs, and other visuals are often used for a more clear explanation for the reader.

The discussion will clearly state all findings, as well as pose explanations for the findings and any conclusions that may be able to be drawn. Think of this as the results, but with less scientific writing. If you’re overwhelmed by the tables and scientific jargon of the results, it may be easier to read the discussion and then go back. Know what the findings and conclusions are makes it easier to understand the graphs.

Conclusion and Directions for Future Research

Personally, this is my favorite part of the paper. Often only a few sentences, this section will give you a broad conclusion from the study. In addition, it will provide direction regarding where additional research is needed in the future. These suggestions for future research are based on the findings and shortcomings of the current study. If a paper was written a few years ago, you may be able to find more recent papers that have taken their suggestions in order to explore a topic further.

Finding Peer-Reviewed Research Articles

Finding peer-reviewed research is sometimes a challenge, and can be expensive. If you’re in college, check out the free subscriptions offered through your school. Many colleges and universities have contracts with journals and peer-reviewed publications that you are able to access from a computer.

If you don’t have this luxury, check out this list of the “Top 11 Trusted (And Free) Search Engines For Scientific and Academic Research“.

If you’re willing to invest and look even further, there are quite a few health and fitness publications that offer scientific research papers as well as reviews of current research.

  • Strength and Conditioning Journal from the NSCA
  • MASS (Monthly Applications in Strength Sport)
  • 3DMJ (3D Muscle Journey) – Offers both free blog posts, a podcast, and research applications in their “Vault”

What research are you interested in learning more about? Comment below or tweet me to leave a suggestion for a future blog post or podcast episode! 

 

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