5 Tips for Understanding Research Stories

By Contributing Writer - August 07, 2018

It seems you can’t go a day without some kind of research making headlines. Depending on the study, simple things like drinking coffee might be shown to increase your cancer risk one day – and decrease it the next.

So, how do you sort out the facts from frustrating claims?

Here are five quick tips for reading cancer-related research in the news, courtesy of Dr. Shelley Tworoger, Associate Center Director of Population Science at Moffitt Cancer Center.

1. Check for clearly-stated basic facts:

✔ What did the researchers set out to investigate? What did they actually find out, and what needs to be investigated next?

✔ What subjects were studied? Were they people? Mice? Other types of animals? Cells? Remember, results from animal studies don’t always turn out the same in people.

✔ If it’s a human study, how many individuals were included? More is better. The larger and more diverse a study subject group is, the more likely its results can be generalized to the broader public.

✔ Who funded the research? This can be a quick indicator of any potential conflicts of interest. Researchers whose studies are funded through federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health have already met scrutiny of scientific peers just to obtain highly competitive grant dollars.

2. Put it in context.

Do these results even have the potential to be meaningful to you? For example, if the study evaluated college-aged people and you are middle-aged, the findings may or may not apply to you. Likewise, findings in men are often different in women. Check to see if you are similar to the study group in factors like age, sex, race/ethnicity, country of residence and socioeconomic status.

3. Cause versus association.

Saying that obesity is associated with increased risks of certain cancers is not the same as saying obesity causes cancer. In humans, the only studies that can come close to pinpointing a cause and its effect are randomized trials in which individuals are randomly assigned to receive a new drug or intervention while other “controls” are given a placebo or the current standard of care.  Of course, that’s not always ethically possible. In thiscase, researchers use a measure called “preponderance of evidence” by looking at whether multiple studies in different populations yield similar results.

4. Understand risk.

There’s a big difference between relative and absolute risk. Cutting your risk in half (relative risk) sounds impressive. Not so much when that means your risk drops from one in a million to two in a million (absolute risk).

5. Don’t believe the hype. 

When you see words like first, best or groundbreaking,” take it with a grain of salt unless there is substantial evidence to back up that claim.While new breakthroughs are important, it is critical for researchers to evaluate the question in other populations or models to make sure it holds up.

Sometimes, it’s hard to answer all of these questions from a news story. If the story provides a link to the original research study, Dr. Tworoger says reading the paper’s Abstract section can be helpful. If you are unsure whether something applies to you – ask! Besides talking to your doctor, there are trusted sources that vet important research and provide context. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are excellent places to start. Of course, you can also count on Moffitt.org to provide information you can trust.


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