The most important thing
I get asked a lot about critical appraisal (i.e. how to read a research paper). I have never had a good answer because it’s not a single skill, but the convergence of many skills coming together to help you understand what someone else has done in their experiment and how that applies to both the actual question they answered and the context in which that answer fits in the larger context of the field in which they are doing the work.
But one of the most common questions I get about critical appraisal is, “What’s ONE THING that a person can do to improve their critical ability?” (Because, as we all know, having more than ONE THING would be preposterous and overloading…where’s the emoji for ‘unimpressed’ again?)
I’ve started a pilot project in coaching critical appraisal; and I’ve come to realize that the ONE THING for which I never felt I had a good answer is: vocabulary.
I used to think the most important thing when reading a paper was identifying the research question. And then I thought it was the methods section. I mean, that’s what they’re teaching in evidence-based practice programs worldwide. PICO (Problem/Patient/Population, Interventions, Comparison, Outcomes) is THE acronym these days (PS. I hate it.)
The most important thing when YOU are reading a paper is vocabulary. Do you understand every word in that paper when you read it? Because if you don’t understand every single word/term/concept in the research paper, then you can’t truly interpret it. If you are, “bad at statistics” and don’t know what those statistical terms mean, then you don’t know what the limitations of those statistics are, and therefore, cannot tell whether the study exceeds them.
PICO, bias, blinding, control groups, correlation, causation are all unimportant if you lack the vocabulary to understand what someone else has done in their study. So stop being distracted by them until you have vocabulary under your belt. Developing research vocabulary is the single most important skill when it comes to research appraisal.