Understanding the Publication and Format of Cancer Research Studies

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2018

Doctors and scientists are always looking for better ways to care for people with cancer. To make medical advances, they conduct research studies. They carry out these studies in the lab or with volunteers in the clinic. Studies that involve people are known as clinical trials. Well-designed research helps answer key questions about how cancer works in the body. They also show what tests and treatments may work best.

However, the results of these studies cannot improve cancer care unless other doctors know about them. The main way that scientists can share their findings is by publishing it in medical journals. They may publish their own research, which describes the results of a study they conducted. Or they may write a review article. A review article looks at all of the published research on a certain topic.

Most cancer research studies are written for other doctors and scientists. But it is becoming more common for patients to read these studies. Patients may do this while researching their type of cancer and the treatment options. Since research studies use scientific terms, it may be hard for a person without a science background to interpret them. Therefore, it is important to talk with your health care team about the research in a journal article.

Research publishing process

Scientific research studies are published in journals. Journals focus on a specific topic, such as clinical cancer research. These journals help present new findings to the research field. Also, they show the type of research method that was used.

Cancer research journals are published in print and online formats. This includes the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO’s) journals. Most journals are published on a weekly, biweekly, monthly, or quarterly basis.

Before appearing in a journal, an article is reviewed by subject matter experts. This means that editors ask peer reviewers to read the articles. Peer reviewers are researchers who are experts in the subject and were not involved in the study. These experts decide whether the research data and results are valid.

Structure of a research article

Research studies published in journals follow a certain format and structure. This format presents the data in a way that allows others to repeat the study. Most articles include background information, the researcher’s methods, results, and the meaning of the findings. This structure is known as Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion, or IMRAD. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors endorses this format. But some journals may use different names for these sections.

  • Introduction. This section answers 2 questions:
    • Why was this study done?

    • What is the research question? For example, does this treatment extend the lives of patients with stage IV colon cancer?

  • Methods. In this section, authors describe how they answered the research question. They explain the study’s design. They also describe the study participants, including:
    • Age, sex, and other general information about the volunteers.

    • The type and stage of cancer, such as stage I lung cancer.

    • How the volunteers were chosen for the study.

    This section includes data about how, how much, and how often the treatment was given. The researchers also state what outcome, or result, they were measuring. For instance, this may include the length of survival or the amount of tumor shrinkage. It also shows how the data were analyzed.

  • Results. This section focuses on the most important findings of the study. Tables and graphics may show the data in different ways.

  • Discussion. This section is also called the conclusion. It describes what the results mean in relation to the study’s purpose. It also places the results within the larger context of cancer research and notes whether the results confirm or contradict previous research. This section helps to explain the importance of the findings.

The abstract

An abstract is a summary that is at the beginning of published articles. It shows the most relevant data from the study. It allows readers to quickly learn about the important aspects of the research. Researchers often present their abstracts at scientific meetings. In fact, they often announce their initial study results at these meetings before they are published.

Searching for research studies

There are many ways to find articles about the latest advances in cancer treatment. To locate an article, visit the journal’s website. Then you can use either the search function or the online archive to find the article.

You can also use large, online databases, which provide study abstracts. One popular database that is used in the cancer research field is PubMed. PubMed is a service of the National Library of Medicine. It includes more than 22 million citations from a wide range of scientific journals. A citation is a reference to a source that provides information. This includes the article title, author names, and journal title.

Using this database may be hard. It contains huge numbers of articles. But you can make it easier by searching for only cancer-related articles. If you cannot find details on a certain topic, try to include more medical terms in your search. For example, try “renal cell carcinoma” instead of “kidney cancer.”

Abstracts can often be accessed online for free. You may not be able to read the complete journal article if you do not subscribe to the journal. But you may be able to pay a one-time fee for a certain article.

For printed copies of medical journals, visit a local library or university.

Related Resources

Understanding Cancer Research Study Designs and How to Evaluate Results

Journals and Magazines

Major Milestones Against Cancer