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Library Resources for the UC-HBCU Summer Research Program in Social Determinants of Health: Evaluate What You Find

Critically Evaluating What You Find

"History of science teaches us that scientific endeavor has often in the past wasted effort in fields with absolutely no yield of true scientific information."
    (Ioannidis, 2005; see handout (.docx))

Evaluation is about determining the quality, value, or importance of something in order to take action. It is underpinned by the systematic collection of information and evidence.

What is evidence? Things to keep in mind:

  • All research is (potentially) "evidence" and there are no "perfect" studies.
  • Is there an agenda (bias)?
    » It's doubtful that any study of humans is totally without some kind of bias, either in the study design, or in the author's pre-existing beliefs, not to mention the source of the research funds. How bias in methodology was controlled and the significance of bias in any particular study is what's relevant.
  • Is qualitative research "evidence"?
    » If your goal is to understand beliefs and meanings in the group with whom you are working, then qualitative studies can be important.
    » Read Criteria for evaluating evidence on public health interventions (J Epidemiol Community Health. 2002 Feb;56(2):119-27)

Who pays for science?
Most scientific research is funded by government, companies doing research and development, and non-profit entities. Because science is attempting to get at some "truth," the source of research funding shouldn't have a significant effect on the outcome of scientific research, right?

» Read Industry sponsorship and research outcome Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Dec 12;12:MR000033).

Peer review
Peer review refers to a process whereby scholarly work (ie, an article) is reviewed and critiqued by experts to ensure it meets some standards of acceptance before it is published.
Does this process make for better science?
» Read Editorial peer review for improving the quality of reports of biomedical studies (Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Apr 18;(2):MR000016)

What gets published? ("Publication bias")
Studies that report interventions that had no effect are less likely to get published. What does this mean in terms of the state of knowledge on a topic?
» Read Systematic Review of the Empirical Evidence of Study Publication Bias and Outcome Reporting Bias (PLoS One. 2008 Aug 28;3(8):e3081)

Oops! I made a mistake (or ... was it cheating..?)
Occasionally, researchers make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes affect the conclusions of a published article. Articles may be retracted if the mistake is significant. This is a formal process where the author or journal publishes a statement outlining the error. Sometimes, however, retraction is the result of fraud, plagiarism, or other bad acts.
» Read Retraction Watch
» Read The continued use of retracted, invalid scientific literature (JAMA 263 (10):1420-3, 1990)

Opinion or fact?
Do the conclusions of the article follow the evidence that's presented? Are opinions or notions posited as facts?
» Search "As is well known..." in Google Scholar.
» Read A Propaganda Index for Reviewing Problem Framing in Articles and Manuscripts: An Exploratory Study (PLoS One. 2011;6(5):e19516)

CV boosting: Does this study add to the body of knowledge, or is it just something the author is doing to add to his/her list of publications?
(In)significance of a single study: Science is incremental. Beware of any study that's proclaimed to be a "breakthrough."
» Read Evidence-based public health (RC Brownson. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

What's the question?
» Compare: "Our intervention worked toward fixing Problem X" vs. "The best intervention(s) for fixing Problem X is/are:..."

What to consider when looking at survey or estimated data:     Adopted from information on the UCSF Family Health Outcomes Project web site
  • Look at sample sizes and survey response rates - representative of your population? Enough responses to be valid?
  • Who was surveyed? - representative of population being compared to? Include group you are interested in?
  • Were the survey respondants from heterogeneous groups? Do the survey questions have a similar meaning to members of different groups?
  • How was survey conducted? Via telephone? - Many people only have cell phones. Random selection or targeted group?
  • What assumptions and methods were used for extrapolating the data?
  • Look at definitions of characteristics - Does this match your own definitions?
  • When was the data collected?

Reliability and validity
Adopted from Chapter 3,
Conducting research literature reviews: from the Internet to paper, by Arlene Fink; Sage, 2010.
Reliable data collection is relatively free from "measurement error"
  » Is the survey written at a reading level too high for the people completing it?
  » Is the device used to measure elapsed time in an experiment accurate?
Validity refers to how well a measure assesses what it claims to measure
  » If the survey is supposed to measure "quality of life," how is that concept defined?
  » How accurately can this animal study of drug metabolism be extrapolated to humans?

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