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Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: How to Read a Medical Abstract, adapted from this content.
Publishing research studies is the primary way scientific professionals use to communicate their findings. They may publish original research or write a review article, which evaluates the existing body of published research on a particular topic. Well-designed research studies can help answer important questions about the biology of cancer, investigate new treatments, and identify areas for further study. Of course, the goal of research is to improve the care and treatment for patients with cancer.
Although the intended audiences for most cancer research studies are medical and scientific professionals, it is becoming more common for patients and their families to read studies while researching information about their cancer type and the treatment options. However, because research studies are written in a specific format and use scientific terms, it might be hard for a person to understand and interpret them. This articleâthe first in a two-part seriesâis designed to help you better understand the publishing process, the format that journals and other scientific publications use to share findings, and how to find studies of interest to you. Part II in this series discusses various types of study designs and provides tips for evaluating study results.
Research publishing process
Scientific research studies are usually published in journals, which are periodicals (publications with a fixed time period between issues) that focus on a specific subject matter, such as clinical cancer research. These publications help introduce new findings into the research community and document the progress.
Numerous journals specializing in cancer research are available in print and online formats, including the American Society of Clinical Oncology's Journal of Clinical Oncology and Journal of Oncology Practice. Such periodicals are usually published weekly, biweekly, monthly, or quarterly, but some are published at longer intervals.
Before getting published in these highly specialized publications, articles must be reviewed by subject matter experts. To that end, journal editors send advanced, unpublished versions of research articles to independent peer reviewers, who then evaluate âbased on their expertise and the information providedâwhether the article is scientifically valid.
When reviewing any scientific journal, it is important to note that the research studies published in the journal are continuously shaping and reshaping the scientific understanding of that subject. For that reason, no single study should be considered to be the last word on a given subject.
Anatomy of a research article
Research studies published in journals follow a set format and structure. This format closely mirrors the scientific process and allows researchers to present information in a way that allows others to repeat the study, if needed. Specifically, most articles present background information, the experiment's methodology or process, results, and the meaning of the findings. This structure–also known as Information, Methods, Results, and Discussion or IMRADâis officially endorsed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. However, it is important to note that some journals name these sections differently.
Introduction. This section should answer the following two questions: (1) why was this study done and (2) what question is being answered. For example, does this treatment extend the lives of patients with stage IV colon cancer?
Methods. In this section, researchers describe how they answered the question. This includes the study's design and the participants, including information about their demographics (such as age and sex), their type and stage of cancer (such as stage I lung cancer), and how they were selected. Meanwhile, if a treatment is being tested, this section should include information about how, how much, and how often the treatment was given. The outcome (result) being measuredâsuch as survival rate, tumor shrinkage, treatment side effects, or quality of lifeâshould also be described, including the statistical methods used to analyze data.
Results. This section summarizes the data that was collected from each participant, focusing on the most important findings of the study. These data are often presented with text, graphics, and tables.
Discussion. Sometimes called the conclusion, this section describes what the results mean in relation to the study's purpose and places the results within the larger context of cancer research. It notes whether the results confirm or contradict previous research and explains the significance of the findings.
The most relevant information from the introduction, methods, results, and discussion sections are placed in an abstract, a summary that allows readers to quickly learn about the important aspects of the research. The abstract is typically placed at the beginning of published articles. In addition, abstracts are the main vehicle of communication at scientific meetings, where preliminary study results are often presented before they are published.
While complete journal articles published within the past year are typically available in print and online only to those with a subscription or to those who pay a one-time fee for a specific article, abstracts can usually be accessed free of charge online. If you know the name of the journal in which an article is published, visit the publication's website and use either the search function or the online archive to locate the abstract. Through the Journal of Clinical Oncology, for example, you may search by keyword, author, year of publication, or topic. You may also browse abstracts and the table of contents for every issue. Articles that are older than one year are available free of charge.
Searching for research studies
You can also use large, online databases, which house study abstracts, to identify relevant studies. One popular database used heavily in the cancer research community is PubMed. PubMed is a service of the National Library of Medicine that includes more than 16 million citations (a reference to a source that provides information such as the author names, article title, journal title, date of publication, and page numbers) from a wide variety of science and medical journals.
Although using this database can be challenging because of the volume of articles, you can make it easier by searching only cancer-related articles. If you are having trouble finding information on a specific topic, try to identify the medical term for the general, common language term you have been trying to search. For example, try “renal cell carcinoma” instead of “kidney cancer.” However, that may not be necessary because PubMed has a feature that "translates" the most common cancer terms into the appropriate scientific terms.
For hard copies of medical journals, visit a local library.
Last Updated: October 25, 2010