- Ascertain the value of evidence-based research.
- Identify appropriate search skills to locate a peer-reviewed article.
- Determine what a keyword is and why it is a more effective way to search.
No matter what academic subjects you study, at some point you will need to conduct research. Even if your coursework does not require formal, documented research, it will, at minimum, include regular research behaviors. Every day, whether deciding which movie to watch or choosing a new technology product, everyone participates in basic, informal research behaviors: a process of seeking information, testing it against other forms of collected information, and analyzing as much “data” as possible before making decisions or being persuaded. Although more formal, the same process applies to scholarly writing.
The Importance of Evidence
Most of the assignments you will complete as a college student will ask you to make an argument, take a stance, or prove a hypothesis. The best way to do this is to research the topic, develop a thesis statement, claim, or hypothesis, and then use evidence.
Evidence is the facts, examples, or sources used to support a claim. Depending on the assignment, this might be data retrieved from a scientific journal article, a quotation from a scholarly resource, or a theory in an academic text. In fact, if you make a claim or an argument without evidence, your paper could appear to be an unsupported opinion or not particularly well-researched. Even when the assignment elicits opinion, your writing will be more convincing if you provide evidence.
Evidence in Healthcare
As you prepare for a healthcare career, it is also vital that you recognize the value of using evidence in a professional context. The goal of the healthcare system is to provide ideal care from a qualified provider in an appropriate setting for a particular patient. In other words, the patient is to receive the best possible care from a provider with the right expertise in a setting that maximizes efficiency and minimizes risk and abuse of resources—all the while treating the patient with respect and allowing involvement in the care plan as the patient desires.
Evidence-based medicine (EBM) uses the scientific method to organize and apply current data to improve healthcare decisions. The best available science is combined with the healthcare professional’s clinical experience and the patient’s values to arrive at the best medical decision for the patient. In short, the goal of evidence-based medicine is to improve medical outcomes based on the highest quality evidence available.
Types of Scholarly Resources
You may need to draw on many different types of information, depending on what you are creating, and how you will use it. Your lecturers will expect you to find relevant information sources, but they will also expect you to be careful and discerning to avoid fake or invalid information in an academic context. It is important to be able to identify not only the different types of information sources but also which ones are most appropriate for your needs.
Popular resources communicate a broad range of information to the general public. The author is often not identified and may not be an expert. The language used is not technical, and these resources are more attractive than scholarly journals, with catchy titles, attractive artwork, and many advertisements but no footnotes or references. It is, therefore, difficult to assess whether a popular source is reliable. Popular resources are published by commercial publishers after approval from an editor. Examples include newspapers, magazines, news reports, social media posts, and websites.
Professional resources are written for professionals in a field. The author is most often identified; however, sources are not always documented by citations and a reference list. The language may or may not be technical. They are meant for people in a particular profession and contain information about trends and news from the targeted field, book reviews, and case studies. Professional resources are usually published by professional associations and commercial publishers after approval from an editor. A trade magazine is an example of a professional information source.
Scholarly resources are written by qualified experts (often academics) within a university setting for scholars in a particular field of study. The author is identified, and their credentials are available. Sources are documented, and technical language is often used. They are usually published in scientific journals by universities, professional associations, and commercial publishers after approval by peer review or from the journal’s editor. Scholarly material can be categorized as followed:
- Primary sources – Resources, such as population statistics or policy documents, that provide a first-hand account of an event or time period and are considered to be authoritative
- Secondary sources – Resources, such as scholarly books or journal articles, that involve analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of primary sources.
- Tertiary sources – Primary or secondary information that has been condensed and rewritten in a simplified form, such as textbooks or fact sheets.
Grey literature is authoritative information, often published by government bodies and non-government organizations (NGOs). The authors may be individual experts, a panel, or a committee. The veracity of grey literature is generally not reviewed by experts prior to publishing; thus, you will need to evaluate the credibility and reliability of such material before referencing it in your work (see Evaluating Resources). Your library will likely have databases holding grey literature. However, grey literature is usually not published commercially and is often made available on an organization’s website; you may have to use advanced Internet search techniques to locate these materials. Examples of grey literature include reports (including research reports and government reports), literature reviews (not published elsewhere in a journal), policy documents, standards, conference papers, and theses or dissertations.
Some journals are categorized as peer-reviewed journals, meaning they contain articles that are viewed as credible and authoritative. They specifically publish articles that have been peer-reviewed. In order for an article to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, it has to go through a formal submission process which includes a peer review stage where experts ensure the accuracy, originality, significance, and other characteristics of the research before it is accepted for publication. These articles are highly regarded because the findings and results have been reviewed by experts in the field.
When researching a topic for your academic work, you may be asked to find “scholarly,” “academic,” “research,” or “peer-reviewed” journal articles. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but not all articles are peer-reviewed.
Types of journal articles
Peer-reviewed journals may contain different types of articles, each with its own audience and purpose. As a health sciences student, you are likely to come across the following journal articles:
- Clinical Trial: A research study performed in people that is aimed at evaluating a medical, surgical, or behavioral intervention. It is the primary way that researchers find out if a new treatment, like a new drug, diet, or medical device (for example, a pacemaker) is safe and effective in people.
- Randomized Controlled Trial: A clinical trial or study where participants are randomly assigned to different groups.
- Meta-Analysis: A quantitative analysis that reviews data from previous research done on a particular topic to better draw conclusions about that research and topic.
- Literature Review: A compilation of the most significant previously published research on your topic. A literature review outlines, evaluates, and synthesizes relevant research to organize what is known about a topic and identify gaps in the literature.
- Systematic Review: A literature review that not only compiles but also analyzes all the pertinent literature on a specific topic. The review attempts to answer a research question, and it can be a very valuable source of resources for your work.
Finding Scholarly Articles
In this “information age” when so much information is available at our fingertips on the Internet, it is crucial to be able to critically search through the reams of information. Selecting credible sources provides reliable and useful data to support your ideas and convince your audience.
Narrowing Your Topic
For many students, having to start with a research question is the biggest difference between how they did research in high school and how they are required to carry out their college research projects. It is a process of working from the outside in. You start with the world of all possible topics (or your assigned topic) and narrow down until you’ve focused your interest enough to be able to tell precisely what you want to find out, instead of only what you want to “write about.”
Although finding a good topic may initially feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, choosing a general topic is the first step. To select a topic, start by thinking about aspects of your field or discipline that might be interesting to pursue, such as “health education” or “diabetes treatment.” Do some background reading to understand more about the topic.
Strategies for Narrowing a Topic
The following strategies can help you choose a topic:
Strategies for Narrowing a Topic
The following strategies can help you choose a topic:
- Start with the assignment. Does it provide you with topic options, or can you select your own?
- Look at topics that are relevant to you. For example, pick an area of interest, an area of experience, or an area where you know there is a need for more research.
- Start with “what” and “why questions and expand. For example, what is the current research on eating disorders, and why is it significant to health sciences?
- Think about a current problem in the workplace. Consider a current issue in a clinical or hospital setting, such as hand washing or patient falls.
- Ask for help. Consult your professor or a librarian about possible topics for your assignment.
- Don’t go too broad or too narrow. Do some background searching and identify a topic angle. Keep in mind, if you are getting too many results, your topic may be too broad. If you are not getting enough results, your topic may be too narrow.
Developing Your Question
You can’t tell whether an information source is relevant to your research until you know exactly what you’re trying to find out. The research question defines that and divides all information sources into two groups: those that are relevant to your research and those that are not—all based on whether each source can help you find out what you want to find out and/or report the answer.
The steps for developing a research question, listed below, can help you organize your thoughts.
- Step 1: Pick a topic (or consider the one assigned to you).
- Step 2: Write a narrower/smaller topic that is related to the first.
- Step 3: List some potential questions that could logically be asked in relation to the narrow topic.
- Step 4: Pick the question that you are most interested in.
- Step 5: Change the question you’re interested in so that it is more focused.
Developing Research Questions for Quantitative Clinical Topics
PICO stands for (P) Patient, population, or problem, (I) Intervention or exposure, (C) Comparison, and (O) Outcome. To use PICO, answer questions about each of these elements. Formulating an answerable question using the PICO model could look something like this:
- Patient, Population, or Problem: What are the characteristics of the patient or population (for example, gender, age, and other demographics)? What is the situation or disease you are interested in (e.g., diabetes management)?
- Intervention or Exposure: What do you want to do with the patient, person, or population (e.g., treat, diagnose, observe)? For example, reaction to a specific type of treatment.
- Comparison: What is the alternative to the intervention (e.g., placebo, different drug, surgery)? For example, how does a sample group that receives a drug compare to a similar group that is given a placebo?
- Outcome: What are the relevant outcomes (e.g., morbidity, death, complications)? For example, how do lower cholesterol numbers impact the target population?
Not all topics will work with all PICO categories, so don’t worry if you can’t match the model exactly.
Searching for Resources
Once you know what you want to search for, you must then filter through the hundreds, if not thousands, of resources that may be relevant to your research. For the best results, choose your search tool and search strategy thoughtfully.
Common Search Tools
Google Scholar is a tool for finding books and journal articles that you might normally get from a library. Where possible, it provides links to online versions and library copies to help you locate an item. Use Google Scholar to find scholarly articles and books, verify citations, and explore related resources. When books are available through Google Books, some of their content may be available online.
If you want to conduct a broad search that covers various subject areas, Google Scholar may be a good choice; however, it has significant limitations. First of all, it covers a broad range of subjects, so your search results will likely include materials not related to the health sciences. Second, it does not have as many advanced search options as specialized databases like PubMed, CINAHL, and Cochrane, so you may not be able to focus your search as well. This is particularly challenging when you consider that a Google Scholar search may return millions of results.
A specialized database—often called a research or library database—allows targeted searching on one or more specific subject areas, for a specific format, such as books, articles, conference proceedings, video, images, or for information published with a specific date range. Most of what specialized databases contain can not be found by Google or Bing.
Search specialized databases to uncover scholarly information that is not available through a regular web search. Specialized databases are especially helpful if you require a specific format or up-to-date, scholarly information on a specific topic. However, you may want to use fewer search terms since the optimal number of terms is related to database size. Internet search engines like Google and Bing work best with several terms since they index billions of web pages and additional terms help narrow the results. Each scholarly database indexes a fraction of that number, so you are less likely to be overwhelmed by results even with one or two keywords than you would be with a search engine. Phrase searching (putting multiple words in quotes so Google or Bing will know to search them as a phrase) is also less helpful in specialized databases because they are smaller and more focused. Databases are better searched by beginning with only a few general search terms, reviewing your results, and, if necessary, limiting them in some logical way.
Effective Search Strategies
Effective searching takes precision. You’ve probably been searching in a more casual way for years and may wonder: Is going to the trouble of precision searching actually worth it? When you are searching for the best evidence to support your work, the answer is yes, precision searching is worth it.
An important thing to remember is that searching is an iterative process: we try search statements, take a look at what we found and, if the results weren’t good enough, edit our search statements and search again—often multiple times. Most of the time, the first statements we try are not the best, even though Google or another search tool we’re using may give us many results. It pays to search further for the sources that will help you the most. Be picky.
Keywords are words that hold the essence, or the key idea, of what you are trying to find. Keywords are usually nouns, e.g., people, places, or things. Using relevant keywords in your search will lead you to better information.
You can identify the first keywords from the topic itself. Try to think of two to four keywords. If you have too few, your search results won’t be specific enough, and if you have too many, you may get too few results. Identify the main concepts in your research question by selecting nouns important to the meaning of your question. Leave out words that don’t help the search, such as adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and, usually, verbs.
Be alert to words that may have connotations other than the concept you are interested in. For instance, if you identify depression as a main idea, be aware that the search engine won’t automatically know whether you mean depression as a psychological state, as a condition of the economy, or as a weather characteristic.
Synonyms can be used to broaden your search to retrieve more results. Synonyms are words that have the same, or similar meaning as the main keywords. Synonyms of keywords are interchangeable, which means that the meaning of your search will remain the same.
You can use phrase searching to make sure the words you are searching for are found together. When you enter search terms into a search box, most databases treat the words separately. Your search results will include articles and books in which the words appear somewhere, not necessarily together. You end up with a large number of search results – many of which may be irrelevant to your search. To improve the relevance of your results, you may want the database to retrieve results that only contain certain groups of words together. When searching for an exact phrase, (i.e., exactly the same words in the same exact order), most library databases support the use of “quotation marks” (“ “) around the phrase, which could be two or more words.
Boolean operators, including AND, OR, and NOT, are words that make it easy for you to customize the results of your search.
- Using the AND operator tells the database that all words, or terms, that you have connected with AND must be found in any results returned.
- The NOT operator will narrow your search results by excluding or removing a specific word or words from the search results.
- Be careful when using NOT, as it can remove results that would actually have been relevant.
- For a broader search, to find articles that discuss marketing with Facebook or Twitter, you could use the OR operator.
When you are using more than one operator in a search (e.g., AND and OR), you will need to group your keywords and operator words using brackets so that the database knows which action to perform first. For example, [healthy NOT healthcare] AND [food OR diet].
A wildcard is a special character that replaces one or more letters in a word (e.g., color) in order to search for multiple variations of the word. When keyword searching, you may miss relevant and useful results if the term you have searched for does not appear in that exact form in an article or book. Wildcard symbols can help you to find word variations so that you don’t miss anything.
To use a wildcard, insert the wildcard symbol used by that database to replace the letter that may change. However, keep in mind that different databases use different symbols for their wildcard. If you want or need to use a wildcard in your search, check the help section of the database you’re using to find the wildcard options.
To “truncate” a word simply means to shorten it by removing one or more letters to go back to the root word. Truncating a word allows you to search for multiple variations of a word at once. You can do this by adding a truncation symbol (e.g., *) to the end of the root of the words. Like wildcards, different databases use different symbols for truncation. Check the database’s help section to find out which one to use.
Many databases provide the option of searching using subject headings. A subject heading is a word or phrase that is assigned to an article or other resource and describes the topic of the resource. It is a bit like a social media hashtag but without the # symbol.
Searching by subject heading is more powerful than other search strategies. When you search by keyword, that word might show up in a number of places in relation to the article, such as the abstract, the author’s name, or the journal title, even if it is not specifically what the article is about. This means your search results may include many articles that are not relevant to you. Conversely, when you search by subject heading, you are limiting your results to articles that are actually about that topic.
Not every concept has a subject heading, so in some cases, you won’t be able to find a subject heading that means exactly what you’re looking for. Rather than trying to convert every keyword into a subject heading, it is often best to use a combination of keywords and subject headings.
It is important to realize that looking for quality, evidence-based resources is more than just finding resources; it is about finding credible resources. When evaluating your resources consider the following:
- Accuracy/Bias: Does the information presented appear truthful/impartial or incorrect/biased?
- Funding: Who funded this study? Was it through the government, private donations, or a private company?
- Leadership: Who was in charge of the study, or who runs the entity that funded it? What information can you find on them through a web search?
- Mission: What is the stated purpose of the study and the mission of the entity that funded it?
- Reputation: What is the reputation of the authors and the funders? Are they well-known, and well-regarded? Have you heard of them before? What information can you find on them?
Websites of Organizations
- Accuracy/Bias: Does the information presented on the website appear truthful/impartial, or incorrect/biased?
- Funding: How is the organization funded?
- Leadership: Who runs or founded the organization? What can you find out about them through a web search?
- Mission: What is the stated or implied mission of the organization? ( Look at the “About” page.)
- Reputation: Is this a well-known, well-regarded organization? Have you heard of it before?
- Web Address: Does the URL end in .edu, .gov, or .org? (Note: This is not always foolproof. URLs of all types can be bought.)
The CRAAP Test is another method for quickly evaluating sources for quality. It stands for Currency, Relevancy, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose.
How to Read a Peer-Reviewed Article
Knowing how to evaluate the quality of a journal article requires you to understand its structure and the purpose of each section.
- The Abstract provides a big-picture overview of what the article is about, synthesizing the most important information. It should also identify both the purpose of the research, as well as its conclusions.
- The Introduction should give you an understanding of what is being researched, how, and why the research is of importance.
- The Literature Review is a comprehensive scan of previously published research on a specific topic. Authors use the literature review to provide readers with a current understanding of the topic and identify existing research gaps.
- In the Methods section, you should be able to find information about the authors’ research process, such as whether the research was qualitative or quantitative and the sample size. This section might also feature tables, statistical analyses, calculations, and questions asked as part of the research.
- The Results section is where you find information (both analyzed results and raw statistical data) about the final results of the authors’ research.
- The Conclusion section contains a discussion of the results and the authors’ overall observations.
- The References section provides you with a full scope of research consulted as part of the authors’ project. References are an excellent way to find additional journal articles on a specific topic.
- The use of evidence in academic writing strengthens your claim. In the healthcare setting, evidence improves the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of healthcare decisions.
- Evidence can be found in popular, professional, and scholarly resources or grey literature. Each type of source has unique characteristics that may make it more, or less, appropriate for your research needs.
- To find relevant information, you will first need to narrow your topic and develop a research question. Then use keywords, phrase searching, boolean operators, wildcards, truncation, or subject headings with search tools like Google Scholar or a library database to find resources that apply to your research question.
- Evaluate your search results, such as with the CRAAP test, to ensure that you are using quality evidence from reliable sources.
- Boolean operators – words that make it easy for you to customize the results of your search (e.g., AND, OR, and NOT)
- Evidence – facts, examples, or sources used to support a claim
- Google Scholar – a tool for finding books and journal articles that you might normally get from a library
- Grey literature – authoritative information that is not usually published commercially; the credibility and reliability of the material may not undergo peer-review prior to publishing
- Keywords – words that hold the key idea of what you are trying to find; usually nouns
- Library database – a specialized database that allows targeted searching on one or more specific subject areas, for a specific format, or for information published with a specific date range
- Peer-reviewed article – an article that has undergone a formal submission process where experts ensure characteristics of the research before it is accepted for publication
- Phrase searching – searching with an exact phrase to improve the relevance of your search results
- Popular resources – meant for a large general audience; may not be credible or reliable information
- Professional resources – meant for people in a particular profession
- Scholarly resources – written by qualified experts for scholars; may be categorized as primary, secondary, or tertiary
- Subject headings – a word or phrase that is assigned to an article or other resource and describes the topic of the resource
- Truncation – shortening a word by removing one or more letters to search for multiple variations of a word at once
- Wildcards – a special character that replaces one or more letters in a word to search for multiple variations of the word
References and Attributions
“Chapter 12 Introduction” in Writing Guide with Handbook by Robinson, M. B., Jerskey, M., & Fulwiler, T. Published by OpenStax under a CC BY 4.0 license. Lightly edited for brevity. Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/writing-guide/pages/1-unit-introduction
The Importance of Evidence
Evidence in Healthcare
Types of Scholarly Resources
The following resources were combined:
- “Working with Information” by Rowena McGregor, Robyn Tweedale, Lyndelle Gunton, Emma Peters, Yvonne Rose, Susanne Schultz, and Karanpal Singh Sachdeva in Academic Success. Published by the University of Southern Queensland under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. Edited for brevity, flow, clarity, and to change to American spelling conventions. Material on categories of scholarly resources condensed and transformed into bullet list. Added original content on credibility and reliability considerations.
- “Popular, Professional, & Scholarly” in Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries. Published under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Transformed bullet points into paragraph format and edited for brevity, clarity, and flow.
Types of Journal Articles
“What Are Clinical Trials and Studies?” by the National Institute on Aging. Published by the National Institutes of Health under the public domain. Lightly edited for consistency with its new context.
“Some Common Types of Scientific / Health Sciences Articles” by the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Library and Informatics Center. Published under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
“What is a Literature Review?” in Scientific Inquiry in Social Work by DeCarlo, M. Published by Open Social Work Education under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. Lightly edited for consistency with its new context.
Finding Scholarly Articles
Narrowing Your Topic
“Narrowing a Topic” in Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries. Published under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Lightly edited for clarity.
Developing Your Question
“Influence of a Research Question” and “Developing Your Research Topic” in Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries. Published under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Lightly edited for flow.
Common Search Tools
“Specialized Databases” in Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries. Published under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Effective Search Strategies
“Why Precision Searching? in Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries. Published under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Edited for brevity and tone.
The following sources were combined to form the section on keywords:
- “Conduct Your Search” by The Learning Portal. Published by the College Libraries Ontario (CLO) under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Lightly edited for brevity and flow. Content on synonyms was reorganized to improve flow.
- “Main Concepts” in Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research by Teaching & Learning, Ohio State University Libraries. Published under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Edited for brevity.
The following sources were combined to form the section on phrases:
- “Searching with Phrases” (transcript) by The Learning Portal. Published by the College Libraries Ontario (CLO) under a CC BY 3.0 license. Edited for brevity.
- “Conduct Your Search” by The Learning Portal. Published by the College Libraries Ontario (CLO) under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.
The sections on boolean operators, wildcards, truncation, and subject headings are from “Conduct Your Search” by The Learning Portal. Published by the College Libraries Ontario (CLO) under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. Lightly edited for flow.
“True or CRAAP?” by The Learning Portal. Published by the College Libraries Ontario (CLO) under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. The question on evaluating for authority was edited to be relevant to an American audience.
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