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Peer Reviewed Medical Research

Updated on February 23, 2010

Peer Review Why It Is So Important

It seems like every week, the press crackles with stories about medical breakthroughs, promising new research, amazing results from studies, or medical findings that could lead to a cure. On the side of virtually every bottle in the pharmacy aisle, the alternative medicine store, or herbal supplements is a statement pointing toward research, findings, or studies that "suggest" that the bottle you are holding in your hand can help with whatever it is you are looking for. Don't even look at the Internet, where "studies" and "reports" can mean anything from a 20-year Harvard led, government sponsored, research project, to two guys in a garage "testing" something.

The question is, that if all of these great new discoveries are happening, and all of this knowledge and research is building a backlog of great new cures and treatments for every disease or medical condition under the sun, then why isn't it getting easier and easier to fix what is wrong with us?

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Medical Research

Research Studies Types Conclusions and Formats

Part of the answer lies in distinguishing between different levels of scientific and medical research. Unfortunately, this distinction is quickly lost in the media and online where journalists, news shows, and websites are all looking for a juicy headline. Since most people don't remember 100% of what they hear or read anyway, the distortion can take over quickly.

There are many different kinds of scientific research, medical studies, and trials that make up the ongoing research effort of ever discipline. However, there is little commercial value in a study that shows there might be small particles of light escaping the rim of a black hole, and so it is chiefly medical or biological research that gets so misused.

It doesn't take long for a drug company, supplement manufacturer, multi-level-marketer, or online website to start citing any research or report that they can find as "proof" that their product works. Unfortunately, while the research is often real, the conclusions drawn from it seldom are.

What Research To Believe

When it comes to drug studies, biology experiments, and other medical research, it is important to understand the system that genuine scientific research operates under. At a high-level, this paradigm can be thought of as consisting of layers of research, each more scientifically valid than the next, with the top-most layer being government approval or sanction of a new treatment or medication. The bottom levels, of course, is where the hope lives, and unfortunately, also where the charlatans thrive.

Even solid, respected, research can be misconstrued in order to lead credence to an claim that actually has no scientific support. Early research is often very targeted. This is done intentionally to remove as many variables as possible. For example, researchers trying to determine what causes the elderly to be more likely to have bones break might study a small group of people aged 70 to 75. The results of that research simply cannot be extrapolated to the rest of the population.

Peer Reviewed Journals Are Best Research

The catch to complicated scientific research is verifying it. If a researcher handed over his data to you, there is a very good chance you couldn't even figure out what he was doing, let alone validate the conclusions he made.

As an analogy, imagine checking over the math homework of a third grader. Chances are, you could look at what they had done and know whether or not it had been done right, because you know enough about subtraction to know that 80 - 6 is 74 and not 64. So, you could validate that work.

Now consider a student working on his PhD in Mathematics handing you his differential equations homework and asking you to check it over and see if he made any mistakes. That is a little different.

In science, the solution is what is called peer review. Basically, a chemist would publish his research findings, along with the data he collected, and the methodology he used for the experiment. Other chemists could both review this paper work to see if something didn't make sense. For example, if someone legitimately proved that the sky was blue, it still cannot be concluded that on cloudy days the sky is missing, because there is no blue.

More importantly, other chemists can do the same experiments and see if the results check out. Not too long ago, two scientist from Utah announced that they had discovered cold fusion. However, their research could not be duplicated by other scientists (or by them).

While being published in a peer reviewed journal likely means the research itself is valid, it is important to know the details before running off and popping a new pill. If the research was only done on a small group of similar people, it might provide no assistance for others, and may even be harmful. For example, if those scientists we talked about above found out that mega-doses of calcium could help make the bones of the elderly stronger, following that advice as a 20 year old, might actually lead not to stronger bones, but to kidney stones.

Be sure to actually read at least the summary of the research directly from the source or medical journal it was published in. Just because it says so on the side of a bottle, doesn't make it true.


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    • Hub Llama profile image

      Hub Llama 7 years ago from Denver, CO

      I think that while there are cracks in any system if you look hard enough. That research passes the basic "makes sense" scan of someone with enough knowledge to know is the first step of verification. Follow up research or someone digging through raw data for something that "doesn't add up" is the second step.

      After that, research is either confirmed or called into question by subsequent research and review. The infamous cold fusion "discovery" was peer-reviewed. That meant the data presented did support the conclusion reached. However, attempts to duplicate the research failed and it was quickly written off.

    • profile image

      Dr. Squiggles 7 years ago

      You know I'm not so certain peer reviewed research is all that its meant to be. I know for a fact that peer reviewers are often no more qualified to review the research than the people that actually did the research! I suppose some review and some sort of standard is better than nothing at all but I think there are still some considerable weaknesses of this type of system. What do you think?

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      A great intro to peer reviewing. We all throw around the term "peer reviewed study"; it's important to know what that's important.