A Beginner’s Guide to Health Research

by | Apr 10, 2022 |

In many countries around the world, a disparity exists between both teacher and teaching quality, with schools leaving many students ill-equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary for successfully navigating life.

Often we hear “do your research”, with the assumption that the reader/listener fully comprehends what seeking reliable information entails. What may ensue is a person going to google, pulling up a couple of (I’m sure well-meaning, but sometimes scientifically void/inaccurate) articles, leaving said person ill-informed and perhaps confused if the articles they are reading are contradictory.

Now, I must preface by saying I am in no way an expert in the field of research. What I can bring to the table are a couple of general points I’ve picked up along the way that might leave anyone reading this a little more knowledgeable on how to better scour the minefield of information that exists on the web, sorting out the riff from the raff. So without further ado, here are my top tips for conducting your health research.

Set your research boundaries

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that more times than I’d like to admit, I’ve sat down to start researching, say on how salicylates relate to migraines, to have ended up an hour later skimming articles on salicylates and their link to eczema, OCD, etc. Damn those rabbit holes!

Before you start your research, make it clear in your head the boundaries of your research. It’s easy to get caught in a research marathon, seeking more and more information until you lose sight of what exactly you wanted to learn in the first place not to mention feeling overwhelmed.

What I suggest is, before opening your web browser, have a clear research question in mind. Just one sentence that sums up what it is you’re trying to seek an answer to, e.g. “Does chocolate trigger migraine?” or “Does the gut impact mood?”. Write the question at the top of your page and keep referring back to it throughout the research process to help ensure you stay on task.

Start broad

Google and Wikipedia for sure have their place in health research. They’re great tools for getting a broad idea of the kind of information out there (opinions, academics, blogs, etc.) as well as a general overview of what a topic entails.

An example is using Google Trends which can be useful in giving you a sense of what your topic is doing overtime. Perhaps your topic is trending up and there’s an avid interest in this field, or maybe your topic is simply a fad (e.g. search celery juice and you’ll see it had a moment in 2019 and then dropped right off). Generally, topics steeped in science will stand the test of time, while those that aren’t backed up by the goods will be left on the scrap heap (not always – I’m looking at you “carbs are bad”!). Google Trends merely reflect search interest in a particular topic and is not perfect by any means, but it does help put your radar up and make you question whether a topic is worth your time and focus.

If using Google, I suggest typing keywords associated with your topic and writing the word “science” or “research” after, just to hone in a little bit. Using these words will help you to find blog articles and review papers where journalists and/or scientists have done some of the hard work in gathering and interpreting scientific papers relevant to the topic. Also, try not to shy away from information that doesn’t support what you already think about the topic. Remember that looking solely for information that supports your stance/idea is confirmation seeking, not research.

And Wikipedia, while not necessarily a reliable source in itself, does provide you with background info on your topic along with a goldmine of references listed at the bottom of the article which can direct you to a host of primary sources, aka, the good stuff!

Some evidence-based health and nutrition blogs I like to read include:

Go to the source

Great, you’ve found a couple of articles to start your research. Now what you want to do is try and understand whether what you’re reading is genuine research or someone’s interpretation of that research. Interpretation of research, usually in the form of newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc. can be very beneficial in understanding a topic due to authors writing in a way that is easy to understand and usually void of heavy science jargon. However, going to the primary source wins every time, allowing you to get the information firsthand, ensuring it hasn’t been diluted with personal bias or motivation (a little too common in the wellness world).

Hopefully, the articles you have found will have included a reference section so you can easily click through to the primary source to see for yourself whether any claims being made are backed by evidence. If the author hasn’t included any references, I’d recommend not taking what they say as fact.

What I suggest instead is jumping on PubMed, Cochrane Library or Google Scholar and typing in your topic of interest to find articles that have been peer-reviewed (articles that are written by experts and reviewed by other experts before they’re published to ensure scientific quality), to see whether the author’s claims are backed by science. If you’re not sure whether the journal article you’re reading is peer-reviewed, this website provides a comprehensive guide on how to recognise peer-reviewed journals.

You can also sort by date which is a great way to get the most up-to-date research on your chosen topic.

Use review papers

I just love me a review paper. These little (actually often rather long) gems save you from having to find and wade through all the individual published papers on your topic. Instead, you can read all the current research in one place.

Basically, a review paper is a comprehensive summary of the current state of research on a given topic, using already published primary sources as their basis. Review papers enable readers to have up-to-date knowledge on a topic, answers to a particular scientific query and/or an analysis of the effectiveness of interventions or mode of treatments in the field.

To find peer-reviewed papers, simply use the databases I mentioned in the previous section for finding primary sources, however, this time filter your search by ticking Meta-Analysis, Review and Systematic Review.

Another benefit of review papers is that they will often have 200+ references listed at the end of the paper so that you can then go on to check out the primary sources; as we know all good researchers do.

Read research papers effectively

I won’t lie. Often when I click through to a research paper, especially a primary source, I’m like “Eeeek, is this written in English?!”. My gentle advice is don’t be put off by all the heavy terminology and pages and pages of info. Often when researching info for my blog, I don’t actually read research papers from start to finish. Instead what I do is use the page search function to find the bits in the paper relevant to my keywords/topic. I also make sure as a minimum to scan the title, abstract and conclusion to ascertain whether I want to spend more time delving into the paper. If the paper is of interest, I usually spend time reading the intro and discussion sections, gathering more detailed information along the way. I also take a quick glance at the method section to see whether it’s a human or animal study (results from animal trials don’t always translate to humans).

If you’d like some more in-depth advice on how to effectively read research papers, check out these vloggers who explain the process much better than I ever could!

Try and disprove your answer

Contrary to what you might think, scientific research is more about disproving than it is about proving. Once an answer to your topic seems to have been found, the process doesn’t stop there. Instead, a good researcher will try to find reasons as to why their answer may be incorrect or limited in scope. Don’t skim past the parts of literature reviews that talk about limitations or opposing positions within studies. Remember the purpose is to seek the truth not to validate your preconceptions.

Final thoughts…

I hope this blog has provided a little more understanding of what it means to research a topic. Remember that not all research is created equal so it’s a good idea to either equip yourself with the skills necessary for finding quality research or at the very least, curate your social media/news feed with the kinds of people who have a good reputation for providing well-researched articles.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 


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