EXPERT COLUMN: UNDERSTANDING MEDICAL RESEARCH

Navigating a Citation and Abstract

Kelsey Ricci, MA
 | 
July 26, 2017  | Last Updated: July 26, 2017

 

If you want to learn more about a topic in the sciences, the best place to go is directly to the source: the academic journal that published the study. It can be daunting to know where to start, and below are some tools to help navigate the citation and abstract of a journal article.

The citation is the official reference for independent work that credits the authors, explains what was studied, and tells you where to find the article.

 

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There is a generally-accepted format for citations, starting with the order of authors. Not surprisingly, the first person listed is known as the first author and drafts the majority of the paper and facilitates communication between the other authors throughout the editing phase. The additional contributors are then listed in order based on their involvement in the project. The last author is the most senior designee, typically the Principal Investigator, who oversees the work and gives final approval prior to publication. If your doctor is involved in research, he or she may be listed as an author on various publications. By understanding the order of authors, one can surmise their level of involvement for that publication.

Next is the title of the paper. The purpose of the title is to succinctly describe what was studied and also present the main finding. It is a full synopsis of the study in as few words as possible. Titles are often clunky run-ons filled with acronyms and jargon, hardly catchy or creative. But good titles foreshadow what is to come in the body of the paper.

Next is the name of the journal, usually abbreviated. There are countless academic journals, some broad in scope (Science) and others geared toward a specific sub-specialty (Neuro-Oncology). The gold standard in clinical research is for colleagues to independently review papers prior to publication – this is called the peer review. Reputable journals will assign two to three experts to provide feedback on the paper, often asking for clarification on certain data points or additional background information to support the stated claims. The authors must address the reviewers’ criticisms through revisions, and only then will a paper be formally accepted.

Peer-reviewed journals are rated by their impact factor, which is the average number of times a paper published in that journal was cited in a particular year. The higher the score the better. In 2016 the New England Journal of Medicine had the highest impact factor among general medical journals with a score of over 72, which means that a paper published in NEJM in 2016 will be cited by other researchers an average of 72 times. A quick way to vet a journal is to search for its impact factor to assess its strength.

The remaining components of the citation include the year of publication, the journal’s issue or volume, and the page number(s). The hard-copy version of these journals can be quite large (and dense), and page numbers can run up into the thousands.

The abstract is an elaboration on the citation.

Here the writers will provide a complete summary of what was tested, the findings, and the implications of the research. The abstract is an opportunity for authors to champion their research by presenting a reasoned argument in a way that piques a reviewer’s interest. Many journals limit the number of words allowed in an abstract, so brevity is the goal.

The specific structure of an abstract is dependent on the journal. Authors will re-work the paper after acceptance and prior to publication to meet the formatting standards. In general, an abstract will have the following elements:

  • Background/Rationale – A brief overview of the condition being studied and how the authors tested the hypotheses.
  • Methods – A didactic account of what was done. The purpose is to outline the process in a general way such that another researcher could replicate the study independently. 
  • Results – This is where the empirical data and statistical analyses are presented. The authors do not speculate on what the results may suggest. Instead data are outlined along with figures and tables to address the primary study hypotheses. 
  • Discussion/Conclusions – Now the authors interpret the results and make definitive claims based on the findings. They cite previous research that served as the building block for the arguments, use statistical analyses to support the claims, and give context to the larger scope and future implications of the research. 
  • Keywords – Often included is a list of words that characterize the study to optimize searchability and cluster similar research topics together.

To learn more or begin browsing articles, go to: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed.


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