BLOG: Knit-picking with Paola Chivers: How to understand research

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Do you ever find yourself perusing an academic journal (no? oh it must just be me then…) and stumble across an article claiming to have discovered the once elusive link between risk factor X and condition Y? Those articles with results just too good to be true?

Then upon taking a closer look at the article, past all of the academic jargon, tables and graphs, you begin to realise that the author may be pulling your leg.

As it happens there is a difference between simply ‘reading’ research and ‘understanding’ it. This understanding is reached via a process I like to call ‘knit-picking’ (Though I think it is more commonly referred to as critical appraisal). This process was much more eloquently described than I myself could ever achieve, by Dr Paola Chivers during her insightful and engaging workshop at The Knowledge Exchange.

Critical appraisal of research involves careful and systematic examination to determine its trustworthiness, value and relevance. Although there are various components of a study under scrutiny, Paola placed emphasis on the importance of experimental validity.

Internal validity refers to the extent to which the test actually measured what it intended to, and external validity is the extent to which the test results can be generalised. Both of these factors are vital to ascertaining the integrity of the research and influence your decision to take the findings on-board or perhaps disregard them.

There are an abundance of ‘threats’ to both internal and external validity that can infiltrate even the most well-intentioned of scientific tests, compromising the interpretation of the results by the researchers and thus the reader.

Whilst I won’t list them now (I’m not the expert here!), next time I am quietly enjoying a cup of tea and some light reading, I will endeavour to remember to look out for the red flags Paola described, which might call into question the “miraculous” conclusions the authors have reached.

I’ll have to make sure it’s green tea I’m sipping on though because that will definitely help me lose weight. And prevent osteoporosis, dental caries, depression, headaches and cancer!



Written by Allison Blackburn, Injury Control Council of WA