As health professionals, you may find yourself referring to research articles to make clinical decisions based on the best available research evidence. However, knowing how to read and critically appraise a scientific paper is important before accepting the reported findings or applying them to a new context. Generally, as health professionals, you are most unlikely to accept what has been written in magazines, blogs, or news reports as scientific evidence, irrespective of the promising outcomes. Rather, you will search the literature for articles published in scholarly journals, as many of us believe that the findings reported are valid and reliable given that they have gone through peer review process. However, this is not always true or even when it is the case, the evidence may be insufficient to answer the question that the reader has. Evidence shows that studies may include defects or biases that go undiscovered, such as wrong study design choices, insufficient sample size, erroneous results, lack of originality, and poor writing styles. For example, there are currently 289 retracted COVID-19 papers that have been withdrawn for various reasons, highlighting the need for careful adoption of findings published in journals.1 Furthermore, there are many health-related journals that charge authors payment to publish their work but provide little or no peer review or editorial oversight, resulting in low-quality, unreliable research.2 These are referred to as predatory journals. These journals frequently imitate reputable journals and are aimed towards early-career scholars or those who are unfamiliar with the publishing landscape.2
When evaluating the appropriateness of research to a particular context of interest, there are several important factors to consider, including:
- Transferability: This refers to the degree to which the findings of a study can be transferred or generalized to other contexts beyond the original study. To evaluate transferability, consider whether the study sample and setting are similar to the context of interest, and whether the study findings are likely to apply in the same way to the new context.
- External Validity: This refers to the degree to which the findings of a study can be generalised to other populations beyond the original study sample. To evaluate external validity, consider whether the study sample is representative of the population of interest, and whether the study findings are likely to apply in the same way to other populations.
- Internal Validity: This refers to the degree to which a study’s design, methodology, and analysis allow for a causal inference between the independent and dependent variables. To evaluate internal validity, consider whether the study design was appropriate to answer the research question, whether the study controlled for other factors that could influence the results, and whether the statistical analysis was appropriate.
- Relevance: This refers to the degree to which the study’s research question and findings are directly applicable to the context of interest. To evaluate relevance, consider whether the study’s research question aligns with the research question in the context of interest, and whether the study’s findings are directly relevant to the problem being addressed.
- Timeliness: This refers to the degree to which the study’s findings are current and relevant to the context of interest. To evaluate timeliness, consider whether the study was conducted recently enough to provide up-to-date information, and whether the findings are still relevant to the current context.
- Ethics: This refers to the degree to which the study was conducted in an ethical and responsible manner, with appropriate consideration for the welfare of study participants and respect for their rights and dignity.
It is imperative to do a proper quality check (known as critical appraisal) of research articles to ascertain the value of the scientific evidence that they present. However, before embarking on discussing the critical appraisal procedure, it is important to understand the structure or parts of a scientific article and to know what each section should contain. Thus when reading a paper, the knowledge of what is expected in each section will guide you in the review and appraisal process.