Knowing how to find and read scientific studies is a handy critical thinking skill. Here are some tips for tracking down original research.
In today’s information age, tracking down reliable data is becoming a more relevant skill than ever. One of the most useful aspects of this skill is knowing how to find and read scientific studies. After all, even messages about what “studies have shown” don’t always report scientific findings accurately. By knowing how to go back to the original research source, you can answer key critical thinking questions:
Along with helping us check original message sources, knowing how to find and read scientific studies is an asset for responding to current issues from an informed biblical perspective. And because real-world observations confirm that the Bible is true, reading scientific studies can not only encourage our faith, but also strengthen our ability to defend the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).
Naturally, many studies you can find online have been written from evolutionary (or otherwise unbiblical) perspectives. This is worth remembering because researchers’ worldview assumptions can affect studies in multiple mays.
For instance, worldview assumptions may influence which data the researchers choose to include—and the methods they use to analyze it—in ways which may influence the study’s results. Common examples of cases where this happens include human and chimp genome comparisons and evolutionary family trees. Researchers’ worldviews can also affect the ways they interpret their observations from a study.
Studies typically report data from observational science, which involves measuring and describing things we can see in the present. However, relatively few researchers will interpret these observations through a biblical lens. That’s one reason why it's essential to discern the difference between fact and interpretation and to consider alternative, biblical explanations which explain the same facts.
Secular interpretations of a study’s findings may sound persuasive at first—especially given researchers’ intellectual writing styles.1 But the critical thinking tools and apologetics resources available through ministries like Answers in Genesis can help you think through such interpretations. (Bonus points if you have a biblical mentor who can help answer questions along the way.2)
On that note, let’s dive into the art and science of tracking down solid information. To start, we’d better unpack the difference between two main types of information sources:
Primary sources are the original articles where researchers report their findings. Typically, these articles appear in academic journals like Science, American Psychologist, Biblical Archeology Review, Answers Research Journal, and countless others. Such journals require studies to be screened by a panel of experts (peer-reviewed) before publication. While theses and independent studies also count as primary sources, they do not undergo peer review.
Secondary sources talk about information from primary sources. Secondary sources include news reports, blog posts, and magazine articles about researchers’ discoveries, along with formal papers called literature reviews which combine information from multiple researchers.
Tip for students: research assignments usually require you to reference peer-reviewed, primary sources. However, literature reviews are handy for pointing you to primary sources, providing useful insights, and presenting overviews of a topic.
Whether primary or secondary sources, most formal papers begin with an abstract—a short summary of the paper’s information. After the abstract, primary articles usually contain the following sections:
With these basics in mind, how do you find primary studies? Here are five general steps:4
Database websites are like online libraries stocked with articles from different academic journals. Some databases you can search for free, like PubMed, Google Scholar, or Science Direct. Others, like EBSCO or Web of Science, allow you access if you’re part of a subscribing university. For research from a biblical perspective, you can also search creation databases like AnswersinGenesis.org, which features studies published in the peer-reviewed Answers Research Journal.
Different databases include different search features. Most have a “year” filter that allows you to look for studies published within a specific date range so that you can focus on only the latest research. Many databases also include a “full text” filter, allowing you to see only articles which are open access (i.e., you can read them for free without being part of a university). Depending on the database, you can also choose what types of sources you search for, including books, studies, literature reviews, papers from specific journals, or articles by certain authors.
Once you’ve set your filters, the next step is typing your key words into the search bar. Some databases (or their advanced search options) let you look up specific keyword combinations by inserting the word AND between the keywords, search multiple keywords by inserting OR, or exclude results with a certain keyword by inserting NOT.
Once you hit “enter,” a list of article titles should pop up, showing a link to the article, author and publishing information, with a text preview. If the article is open access, you may see a link to a free-text version near the preview, or you may need to click the article title to see free text links. Even for studies which aren’t open access, you can usually read the gist of their findings in the abstract.
Research papers are usually so long that the writers know many of their readers won’t take time to examine the whole article. That’s why the abstract is your best friend, providing a glimpse into the article’s key content. Your second-best friend is likely the discussion section, which typically restates the study’s purpose, methods, and results. These two friends will let you know if the study’s content is relevant enough for you to take a closer look at the methods and results.
On the article’s page (or near its text preview) in your original search results, you may see related articles or citing articles links. The related articles page lists other studies on the same or similar topics. However, some of those studies may be much older than the original article (unless you reset your date filters).
While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with old research, new studies may overturn or reinterpret older findings—especially in fields like biology. To see whether later researchers have other reinterpretations of a study, click the “citing articles” button present on some databases. The linked page lists all the studies which referenced the original article. Not all these studies may be 100% relevant to your topic of interest, but they will be newer.
On the “citing article” page, you may also be able to check a box labeled “search within citing articles.” Once you’ve checked this box, you can use the page’s search bar to look for keywords in articles that cite the original study. This feature lets you see what other researchers have said about specific concepts within the paper, potentially revealing another side of the story.
To recap, knowing how to find and read scientific studies is not only an asset for thinking critically about information sources, but can also help us better defend our hope in Christ. Thousands of such studies are available on academic databases, where you can search for the latest research on any topic.
Along the way, remember to keep your critical thinking senses alert. Even researchers can make mistakes, draw faulty conclusions, and show biased worldviews. Studies can also be misled by faulty methods, instrument errors, or other confounding factors. That’s all the more reason why our final authority is not fallible researchers, but the infallible word of God—the foundation which makes scientific reasoning possible.