How to Navigate Research

The motherhood transition comes with a need to make a continuous stream of choices.  This decision making can be guided by both intuition and knowledge. They complement each other as they ebb and flow on different topics and at different times in motherhood. Acknowledging the value and importance of both unlocks our potential for making true informed choice.  For a description on how the two can work together in motherhood, check out the BIRTHFIT blog by Sara Rausch on Mother’s Intuition vs Education (1).   When thinking about how to navigate research, there are two major questions on which to reflect: 1. What is the level of quality in this research article? 2. What is this research article showing me and how can I apply it to my transition?

 

Gauging the Quality of Research Articles

Although diving into the current literature can give us access to new and exciting information, not all research is created equal, even in peer reviewed and published journal articles.  Here are some quick ways to vet a research article.

  • Publication Date: Stick to articles published in the last ten years.  There have been some great articles published in the past, but as our knowledge on women’s health and healing grows, our processes should evolve too.  Staying up to date on the research keeps us from becoming stagnant, so we can make the best decisions with what we know now.
  • Multiple Authors: Aim for three or more.  Research is a living, breathing creative process that is guided by science.  The human element adds to the beauty of the process, but it can also be part of its downfall.  Sometimes researchers can be biased or close-minded to newly budding theories. Research teams help to fuel exploration for new ideas while holding each other accountable to representing the truth.
  • Strength in Numbers: The larger the “n” the better.  The number of participants in a research study is known as the “n” and will be described within the methods or maybe the abstract too.  A study with 123 participants will be described as having an “n = 123”. When studying a subject that is more nuanced or a risk that is very rare, a larger n is especially important.  Smaller numbers of participants can skew the results and paint a picture that is inaccurate.

 

Digesting the Content

Research studies can be lengthy and full of statistical jargon which can make the information within feel daunting.  If you are new to research, there are certain components that may be more beneficial for you to focus on at first. Regardless of the field, most studies have a similar outline of sections.  Here is the breakdown of the components and what each brings to the table.

  • Abstract: This is a quick and dirty preview of the article.  It summarizes each of the following sections in 1-3 sentences.  Reading the abstract gives you an idea if this article is addressing the question or topic that you are researching, and gives you clues on if you should continue reading or move on to another study.
  • Introduction: This section sets the scene for what is to follow.  Here you will find a description of why this topic is both important and relevant.  The significance is usually illustrated in the form of statistics to describe who is affected and to what degree.  Then the authors give a brief overview of the previous research in this field. The goal of this section is to give us the background that we need to best understand the scope of this article and what gaps in the research the authors intend to fill.
  • Methods: Now this is where the nitty gritty begins.  This section can be dense to process and may require some degree of background in research methodology.  Don’t get discouraged if some of it sounds like gibberish.  As you are processing this section, there are some gems to glean like number of participants, demographics of those involved, and the timeline of when an intervention was given and when the results were measured.  Knowing the demographics helps us decide how broadly we can apply this knowledge. If this was a study completed with college-aged white males, how far can we draw conclusions to populations who don’t completely fit that bubble (2)?  Knowing the timeline helps us identify short-term versus long-term treatments and results. Some studies due to limitations of time and money look only at immediate effects of one-time treatments. This may give us inaccurate expectations of effects.  The methods helps us pull out the important details about the who, what, and when.
  • Results: Nitty Gritty Part II.  Again, this section can be valuable, but it requires a solid foundation in inferential statistics.  Many of the processes here are focused on differentiating whether any variances between groups are due to either random chance or the focus of this study.  You may see terms like confidence intervals, p-values, and Chi squares. Feel free to scan over this section if it starts to look like another language.  If I dared to pick a term that is the most valuable to look at in this section, it would be the alpha (α).  This value ranges from 0.0 – 1.0. It judges the statistical significance of the results, meaning that the lower the value, the more confident you can be that the variables in the study are related and the results are not due to random chance.  Conventionally a value of less than .05 is ideal, but can change depending on the sample size and other variables associated with certain topics (3). Many of the numbers and equations will be broken down and made more tangible in the next section.
  • Discussion & Conclusion: Now the rubber hits the road again.  You may see either one or both of these sections near the end of the article.  The discussion is the interpretation of the results presented earlier. The authors translate all those Greek and Latin terms into the English language.  The conclusion is where the authors begin to make bridges from the data to previous literature to potential real world applications. Additionally, the interpretation of data can differ from one person to another, so watch out because opinion can start to creep in within this section.  If you are in a time pinch, the abstract and the conclusion are great starting points.  As you get more confident with the language used in research, the other sections will begin to contribute more and shape your reading.  You will begin to make your own interpretations of the data and own the knowledge that is inside.
  • References: This part might be easy to scroll over, but resist the temptation and at the very least skim through the authors, titles, and publication dates.  Each study you read did not materialize in isolation. Instead it is part of the slow evolution of research by means of the scientific method. The greater the authors’ exploration of previous literature, the firmer the foundation for which to build upwards.  It can show us that this study is likely to be stronger if it has been supported by multiple researchers at multiple institutions over a fairly recent time span. Also, if you are wanting to look deeper into the topic, save some time spent scrolling on Google Scholar and start with this gold mine of articles cited here.

Remember, education alone does not change behavior.  I hope that after each article, you pause and reflect.  Ask yourself what this data means to you and if it is in tune with your values.  Then choose one tangible step to put this knowledge into action in your life. Knowing is only 5% of the climb.  Making daily choices rooted in both knowledge and intuition is what unlocks our ability to evolve into the best version of ourselves.

 

Mallorie Coffman, DC

BIRTHFIT Newton @birthfit_newton

 

Citations

(1) https://birthfit.com/blog/2019/01/30/mothers-intuition-vs-education/

(2) Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.

(3) Goodwin, C. J., & Goodwin, K. A. (2017). Research in psychology: Methods and design (8th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

 

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