Learning the language of research can help you understand and use the answers researchers have found to important scientific questions and human problems. It.can also help you read academic texts (and tests) more easily.
This page explains key words for understanding the process of research. It talks about what can go wrong, leading to false or misleading results.
Then it links to several discussions of research including these words, so you can read the way that scientists use them.
At the bottom is a link to a crossword puzzle so you can check your understanding of many important words used in research reports.
Research starts with a question or a problem. Researchers begin their work by finding out what others have already learned about the subject.
If their question has not been fully answered, they figure out a way to get more information—perhaps through observation, or an experiment to test their idea.
After completing their observations or experiments, they analyze the data (information) they have collected, and then publish their procedures, data, and conclusions so other scientists can repeat the experiments if they want to double-check the conclusions.
The “gold standard” (best proof) of clinical research is a double-blind trial. That means an experiment with two (or more) groups of people, but only one group receives the drug or treatment being tested. The other group gets a placebo: a “sugar pill” or other treatment that looks and feels just like the experimental treatment, but has no active ingredients. Any effects it has are psychological—because the participants expect it to work.
It’s called a “double-blind” experiment because both the researchers and all the participants are “blind” during the test. Nobody knows until after the experiment is completed which group got the treatment and which group only got an inactive placebo. That helps prevent their expectations from distorting (twisting or changing) the results.
If the tested treatment does not show a significantly stronger effect than the placebo, it is probably not making a real difference except for people’s hopes and expectations.
There are several ways research results can be misleading: because of a flawed (imperfect) research design, errors (mistakes) made during the experiment or when analyzing the data, or even possible researcher bias (wanting certain results so badly it influences the results).
Sometimes drug companies or other groups that might profit from the results pay for the research, but only report it if they get the results they want.
Here is an article, and then a TED talk, that discuss these problems in more depth (and demonstrate the language for errors.) The article emphasizes the importance of replicating important research (having other researchers repeat the experiment.) If other researchers can get the same results a second or third time, people can have more confidence in the results.
The TED talk gives some clues to recognize when some research results may be biased or missing. (The speaker presents some very useful information, but he talks quickly and uses a lot of British slang. If you find listening difficult, try reading the written transcript of his talk.)
Research Study 1: Drug Interactions
Doctors know a lot about the side effects of single medications, and even about some interactions between two drugs, but what can happen when a person takes several (as many patients with serious health problems do)? This talk discusses why more research is needed on the interactions between drugs that may be safe individually.
Study 2: The Effects of Green Spaces on Health
This study finds major health benefits for city residents living near parks and other green spaces.
Study 3: Forest Re-growth Helps the Climate
This article discusses how regeneration (re-growth) of tropical forests can mitigate (help reduce the problem) of global warming by taking carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in the trees.