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FIT Insights

Scientific research fundamentals

Eight principles that, if followed, separate science from fiction

According to the National Library of Medicine, the number of indexed citations added to MEDLINE® during the fiscal year 2017 was more than 800,000.1 As the number of publications increases more and more each year, the adherence to the standards of credible and quality research becomes very inconsistent. The hope is that the fundamentals of “scientific” research are followed throughout the process of study design, execution and manuscript writing.

The eight principles described below are constant and apply to all disciplines of scientific research,2 from business management to medical sciences:

  1. Purposiveness. A study should have a clear aim that is clearly stated in the introduction of the manuscript. This aim should also be relevant and beneficial. The readers need to know why this study is important and what exact question the investigators are trying to answer before they delve into the methodology and results.
  2. Rigor. Scientific research should be done carefully with the aim of being as exact as possible. This carefulness includes making sure the methodology and statistical approaches are the best to answer the study question, consulting statistical experts when needed, and working hard to eliminate sources of bias. It is equally important to make sure the manuscript reflects this rigor by clarifying the methodology and addressing the study limitations in an unbiased manner.
  3. Testability. A good study should be based on a logical theory that can be tested to reach a sound conclusion. The concept of testability can also relate to practicality, especially for a Fellow-In-Training or a young investigator. Many great theories and research questions are simply not “testable” because of the lack of required resources: appropriate databases, necessary laboratory equipment, or even the time needed to test the hypothesis, which may exceed the time available for a trainee in their respective institution.
  4. Replicability. Using the exact same methodology repeatedly should result in similar findings. A lack of replicability might mean that the results were related to chance, or in extreme cases, it could be an indicator of fraudulent science. This is why it becomes important to discuss the study findings in the context of previously published data on the topic, and if different results are presented, the authors should spend time exploring what different methodological approaches or study settings could explain this discrepancy.
  5. Precision and confidence. Precision simply means how close the results are to reality. Since 100% certainty is almost non-existent in science, it becomes very important to state how confident we are of the results we are presenting. Therefore, clarifying the 95% confidence interval for every point estimate in the paper is crucial for proper understanding of the study findings.
  6. Objectivity. Study conclusions should be solely reflective of the actual results of the data analysis and not based on assumptions or affected by emotional biases. This is probably one of the most commonly breached principles of scientific writing. While it may be acceptable to use the discussion section of the manuscript to explain some of the study results through some educated assumptions or previously published reports, the conclusions must be derived only from the data facts presented in the paper.
  7. Generalizability. This refers to the scope of applicability of the research findings. This depends on the inclusion and exclusion criteria and the special settings of the study. The wider the range of applicability, the more useful the results are to the scientific community. It is the responsibility of the authors to clarify the study population/setting in detail to help the reader understand how to best apply the findings.
  8. Parsimony. This refers to simplicity in explaining the problem (also known as Ockham’s razor). One should not go looking for complex explanations when a simpler one is available. This stems from a good understanding of the area of research addressed by the manuscript. The caveat to this rule would be the famous quote by Albert Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. This principle of simplicity can also be extended to writing style. Brevity and simple sentences always deliver the message more efficiently while redundancy and complex language divert the reader from the main concepts of the paper.

Scientific writing is similar to storytelling; it needs a good introduction to capture the reader’s attention, it should be easy to follow and understand, and should help the reader reach a logical conclusion. However, sticking to the hallmarks of scientific research is what separates science from fiction.

Author

Amr F. Barakat, MD

Amr F. Barakat, MD, is a Cardiovascular Medicine Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. He is invested in academic cardiology with special interest in electrophysiology, and is a strong believer in the role of social media in medical education and promotion of scientific research (tweets @AmrFBarakat. He volunteers for the AHA FIT blogging program.

Reference

  1. Citations Added to MEDLINE® by Fiscal Year. Accessed on February 24, 2019.
  2. Sekaran U, Bougie JRG. The scientific approach and alternatives approaches to investigation. In: Sekaran U, Bougie JRG. Research Methods for Business: A Skill Building Approach. 5th ed. Chichester, England: Wiley Publishers; 2009.