Promoting public health depends on having good information. Much of the information we rely on comes from studies published in journals, but we often learn of these studies from news outlets that present distorted pictures of the findings. Going straight to the source limits that distortion but can be difficult for a number of reasons.
Several blog posts this week offer helpful guides to accessing, understanding, and contextualizing academic research for public health. I’m going to devote this week’s blog roundup to these posts (and to a few timely posts linking science and pop culture).
Access: First, there’s the issue of whether you can access a scientific article to begin with. A lot of the big academic journals make their content available only to subscribers, who have to fork over hefty sums. Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock has been a champion of open access science (as well as an avid blogger) for a long time, and the open access journal PLoS ONE was smart enough to hire him as their Online Community Coordinator. His blog is a great place to go for links to some of the latest studies that are available for free.
Study Design: Once you’re reading a study, you’ll want to pay attention to its design. Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science delved into this topic from the perspective of trying to design a study to assess the human health effects of exposure to synthetic chemicals. This is a particularly tricky question because all humans in the U.S. (and in most of the world) have these chemicals in our bodies already. In examining this question, Janet gives a handy overview of experimental design.
Body of Research: Orac at Respectful Insolence gives us a series of posts on secondhand smoke, providing a great example of looking at a body of research on a “contentious” topic. The first post, “Blowing Smoke Over Secondhand Smoke,” takes a critical look at attacks on the body of evidence linking secondhand smoke to health problems. Several comments on this post provided Orac the opportunity to highlight the tactic of quote mining, which can present a skewed picture of the science on a given topic. Finally, “One last puff of smoke over Helena, MT” explains how responsible researchers and advocates deal with research that is preliminary in nature.
Preliminary Research: Also on the topic of preliminary research, Abel Pharmboy at Terra Sigillata examines the recent report “Fructose but Not Glucose Consumption Linked to Atherogenic Lipid Profile.” He highlights several elements that are important to consider when reading such reports – including study size, magnitude of effect, and findings from similar studies – and explains why research into this area is important. It’s a great example of how to look at new research on an emerging topic.
Etc: These posts aren’t as recent, but I’d be remiss if I wrote about research blogging and failed to mention Angry Toxicologist, a constant source of pithy, knowledgeable posts on new scientific studies. (Past posts about studies on phthalates, PFOA, aspirin, and other substances are available at Angry Toxicologist’s old site; for newer content, visit Angry Toxicologist’s new Science Blogs home.) Also, Revere’s excellent series of posts on modeling antiviral resistance provides a detailed explanation of how investigators construct and use mathematical models.
I’m sure I’m leaving out a lot of great blogging on scientific research, so please add other recommendations in the comments.
For your entertainment: anne-marie at pondering pikaia and easternblot both have several posts investigating scientific themes in the Harry Potter books (hat tip to Coturnix), and Katy Balatero at Gristmill examines green themes in the Simpsons movie.