A Beginner’s Guide to RA: How to Read a Study
How do you interpret a research study?
Staying informed about rheumatoid arthritis, treatments and other aspects of living with the disease is a big part of becoming empowered. Finding that information often involves learning more about RA research, even reading articles about studies in scholarly journals, such as The Journal of Rheumatology and Arthritis Care & Research. And this is where most laypeople hit a wall. Like all professions, scientific research has a jargon and s specific way of doing things that can seem unintelligible to the rest of us. But if you know a few tricks, you can make sense of it.
Parts of a Study Article
Traditionally, there are five parts to a journal article: Abstract, Introduction, Methodology, Results and Discussion or Conclusions.
Abstract — this is another word for summary. The abstract appears at the top of the article and summarizes all the other parts. If you’re in a rush or just need the gist of what’s going on, this is all you need to read.
Introduction — this section provides an orientation to the issue in the study. Research builds on available knowledge about the topic being studied. The introduction therefore usually includes a review of past research, with citations to a list of reference articles a mile long at the end of the article. It will also outline the hypothesis being tested, refining the issue researched in this particular study. A hypotheses is a statement of proposed explanation. Examples could include “people with RA have more depression than people who don’t have RA” or “this new medication will be effective in treating RA.”
Methodology — studies need to be well-designed in order to achieve the most accurate results. This includes measures to eliminate bias that could affect the quality of the study. Let’s say you are researching a new drug in a clinical trial. Such studies usually use at least the following three measures to ensure unbiased results. Participants will be assigned to two groups, one receiving the drug, the other a placebo. A placebo is an ineffective substance that is administered the same way as the drug. The selection process for the groups will be random, which makes the results more valid and generalizable to the general population. Lastly, the study will be double-blind, which means neither the participants nor the researchers know who will receive the drug and who gets the placebo.
Results — if you’re not fond of math, this is the part that can make your brain hurt. This section outlines the statistical analysis of the results, usually going into some detail about the method used and levels of significance (usually either described as α = 0.05 or α = 0.01). This is a crucial part of testing the hypothesis outlined in the Introduction. If the statistical analysis is significant, it suggests that the hypothesis is correct, e.g. that the drug in a clinical trial was more effective than the placebo.
Discussion — this section pulls the whole thing together. It discusses the results, connecting them to the hypothesis and past research. Any issues that may have affected the results of the study are also discussed, as are avenues for further study. This does not mean that the study is poorly designed or the results are suspect. It’s a common procedure when writing up a study and acknowledges that there is no such thing as perfection in research.
If you’ve ever taken a look at a scholarly journal article, you might despair of ever making sense of them. Not to worry. The honest truth is that unless you like to geek out about study design and statistics, you can skip over the Methodology and Results sections. These types of articles are peer-reviewed, meaning that other researchers read and assess the articles before publication. The fact that the article appears in a respected journal tells you the study is solidly designed and analyzed.
When you read articles about a study, you may find links to the study itself in the journal in which it was published. If you follow the link, you’re likely to find that it costs rather a lot of money to access the full article. This is where PubMed comes to the rescue. PubMed is a website run by the US National Library of Medicine and provides citations to studies within biomedical literature. Usually, this involves the Abstract, although sometimes you can find links to the full text of the study, as well. Best of all, it’s free!
Being informed about RA doesn’t mean a mandatory immersion in journal articles, unless you think it might be interesting to explore in that direction. Writers on many websites review studies and write about what they can mean to you. Look for respected websites that provide high quality information, such as HealthCentral. What’s important is that you read and think about the articles and how they can contribute to you living well with RA.
Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She’s the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.