Many of us have fallen victim to clickbait or flashy headlines designed to grab our attention. But those headlines don’t always lead to meaningful, informed research. So how do we separate the new and useful information from the misleading work? As a research scientist with over a decade of research experience, I’ve got a few tips to help you evaluate research studies like a seasoned pro.

Tips for finding quality research studies

  1. Check the Sources – Journal and Funding
    • Peer-reviewed journals are considered most reliable because they are often carefully evaluated by experts in the field; but even then, discretion should be applied. Since peer review is considered the gold standard, some journals may attempt to mimic peer-reviewed articles but instead publish without rigorous peer review or for a fee. For example, BioRxiv is an open-access online publication platform for articles that have not undergone peer review or editing before posting. To ensure credibility, use trusted online databases like PubMed, Academic Search Premiere or AcademicOneFile to access and assess publications.
    • Additionally, research studies can be funded by various sources, including industry sponsors. You can find funding sources in the article. While it’s essential to remain mindful of potential biases, it’s equally important not to disregard a study solely based on its funding source. Industry-funded studies play a significant role in the research community, particularly in areas with limited funding. Ultimately, the quality of a study should be determined by the strength of its evidence and methodology, rather than its funding source alone.
  2. Dig into the Methodology
    • Consider not just what was found, but how it was found. For instance, imagine a study concludes that a new disinfectant is better at killing pathogens compared to a standard disinfectant. If the methods show that the study did not use an EPA-registered disinfectant or failed to consider important factors like starting contamination levels, proper cleaning techniques, or adherence to the disinfectant’s directions for use and contact times, you may begin to question the results. Plus, if a study lacks a clear and detailed methods section, that’s a reason to raise an eyebrow!
  3. Keep It Real — Assess Relevance and Applicability in the Real World
    • When assessing a study’s relevance and applicability, consider whether its findings can be generalized to broader contexts. For example, if a study shows the efficacy of a dietary intervention for managing a specific health condition in controlled settings with carefully monitored diets, evaluating whether the intervention can be generalized to real-world scenarios may involve considering factors like cultural dietary preferences, socioeconomic status and food accessibility.
    • Similarly, if the study was conducted in a laboratory setting, consider how closely the test environment mimics real-world scenarios. While laboratory conditions may not fully replicate the complexities of the real world, they can provide valuable insights and allow for rigorous testing of hypotheses under controlled conditions.
  4. Scrutinize the Results and Conclusions
    • Be cautious of studies that exaggerate their findings or draw conclusions unsupported by the data. Look for studies with well-supported and cautiously interpreted results. When a new study gains media attention, it can be common for headlines to sensationalize the findings to create the impression of a groundbreaking discovery. However, most study results contribute to existing knowledge by adding another piece to the puzzle.
    • To assess the credibility of a study, consider if its findings align with prior research. Multiple studies reporting similar results strengthen the evidence base. For laboratory-based research, ensure that experiments were performed in duplicate or multiple times to confirm the consistency of results and minimize the impact of experimental errors on the conclusions.

Navigating the worldwide web of information with confidence and clarity

All in all, whether you’re an Infection Preventionist (IP) staying in the loop on the latest research, a seasoned researcher or a cleaning professional, knowing how to assess the credibility of a study is a critical skill. In a world overflowing with information, it’s easy to get lost in flashy headlines and misleading claims. Fortunately, there’s a lot of great and valuable content out there — you just need to know where to find it and how to critically analyze it. And once you do, keep applying discretion. It’s vital that we approach clickbait and sensationalized headlines with a discerning mindset. So, let’s continue to question, analyze and scrutinize research studies to ensure we’re making informed decisions.