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The ultimate secondary research guide (a collaborative effort)

The ultimate secondary research guide (a collaborative effort)

Image credit: Debby Hudson / unsplash

By Darko Savic on Jul 30, 2020

Secondary research involves interpreting, re-analyzing, or reviewing “past data” - information that has been previously collected by somebody else. This type of data is accessible via research papers, books, articles, etc.

Let's put together our best tips/tricks/advice and create the ultimate how-to guide for secondary research. The contributing bits can be arranged by the number of likes, so the best advice will surface to the top.

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Know your audience and respect their time

Before you start researching/writing, you should have a clear idea of who your readers are. If you want to publish your research in a peer-reviewed journal, your readers are highly educated scientists, who probably know the background of your research. On the other hand, if you are writing for the general public, people may not be well informed on the subject. Therefore, you need to explain every technical term you use with vocabulary that can be understood by the audience. The reader should get a clear picture of what you want to say. Too much-unexplained technicality will either bore or scare your readers. However, saying that be sure to maintain the right amount of topic-specific jargon like the names of molecules, enzymes, and not-so-common processes. Your review is not a bin where you dump all of your gathered information. Carefully select the information and a few visuals for the review. The primary aim of a review is not to communicate every little detail of the research, but rather to inform people on what has been done, why it has been done, and to realize its future potential and impact. The reader’s time should not be wasted. Therefore, condense the content to the fewest number of words, organize it by sections and lists of bullet points where applicable.

by Darko Savic on Jul 30, 2020

Understand your goal and the research topic

Define the area of research and list out questions that you want to be answered. This will facilitate focussed research. Write down your naïve ideas or preconceived notions regarding the topic before you start the research. You can create a mind map for starters. You need these naïve ideas because an informed write-up tends to corrupt or bias your mind in thinking that what you read is the only plausible explanation.

by Darko Savic on Jul 30, 2020

Research keywords

A keyword/phrase is the concept behind your question. The best way to identify keywords is by using the 5W’s and the H approach. Ask questions about the topic at hand – what is the topic? Who is the subject? When, where, and how did it take place? Why is it a concern? The keywords are usually the answers to these questions. If you get a long list of keywords, assign priority to each word.

by Darko Savic on Jul 30, 2020

Gather information

Research can be performed by using academic peer-reviewed journals, magazines, books, market research reports, and any other form of publicly available information. While covering up to date advances, do not forget to include the older findings if they are still relevant as they will form the foundation of your review. While reading research papers, look out for the absolute change or the strength of the association in the reports. A very weak change or a weak association need not be blown up to ascertain the effect observed. Use the references cited in an article to determine the credibility of the information presented. Although not full-proof, this system will give you an idea of how serious the author is. As a general rule of thumb, detailed references are more credible. It is also preferable to use peer-reviewed publications in your review. Peer-reviewed publications are usually validated by peers and thus should contain high-quality research. You can find out whether a publication is peer-reviewed by using online databases, as the search results can be limited to view peer-reviewed publications only. When you sit down to gather information from the sources at hand, you will end up with a basic research article. However, information is always piling up, and what you know today might be stale tomorrow. If you wish to keep up to date with your research topic, sign up for newsletters, and set keyword email alerts (pubmed, google alerts).

by Dragan Otasevic on Jul 30, 2020

Dragan Otasevic 6 days ago

Some information sources to explore: libgen.is, iris.ai, researchgate.net, academia.edu, zenodo.org, scholar.google.com, wikipedia.org, Medscape.com, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, scielo.org, bioRxiv.org, sci-hub.se. For books: b-ok.org, libgen.is...

Precision and clarity

Writing well doesn’t just mean improving your style but also improving the content. We like to make complex sentences using impossible words and passive tenses. We believe this is how it should be done and makes us seem intelligent. However, in reality, this is a selfish way of writing, which does not take the reader into account. So it is better to construct simple and smaller sentences that are easily understandable. Here are some specific examples of words that you should avoid while writing. Watch out for weasel words or phrases that sound good but convey little to no information. They create a good first impression but not a long-lasting one. There are a few types of weasel words: Salt and pepper words: Avoid seasoning your reviews with salt and pepper words. You might feel these words sound technical and convey a gross meaning, but all they do is highlight your uncertainty. Some common salt and pepper words/phrases are various, variety, a number of, fairly, and quite. Sentences that cut these words out become stronger. Bad: We used a number of methods to isolate the sample. Better: We isolated the sample using [mention the method] method. Beholder words: Meanings of the beholder words convey the feelings of the reader. Intelligent readers may not like judgments made for them. Beholder words are of great use in science fiction where you want to lead the reader through your plot but not when you are stating facts. Common beholder words are interestingly, surprisingly, remarkably, and clearly. Bad: Surprisingly, most rats showed tumor remission after the treatment. Better: To our surprise, most rats (90%) showed tumor remission after the treatment. Lazy words: Avoid lazy words to describe quantitative characteristics. They give the impression that the said analysis is undone. Common lazy words are very, extremely, several, exceedingly, many, most, few, vast. Bad: The two variants were very similar. Better: The two variants were over 95% similar. Adverbs: You weaken a sentence when you use adverbs more frequently than you strengthen it. Bad: Our solution is completely different. Better: Our solution is different. Just like the weasel words, the removal of the passive voice would certainly improve your technical writing. However, in rare cases, the passive voice is useful to shift focus onto the right words. For example in cases where the subject is irrelevant. Okay: The cultures were incubated at 37 °C. Alternatively, also okay: We incubated the cultures at 37 °C. The passive voice should be avoided when it hides relevant information or misplaced emphasis. Every time you think of using the passive voice ask yourself: Is the subject relevant? Is the subject unclear? Does the sentence read better in active? If the answer to all the questions is "yes," then change to active. If only the answer to question 1 is "yes," then mention the subject. If the answer to question 1 and 3 is “No”, only then go with passive. Other words to avoid: Studies/study: “Several studies showed that…” Here, the word “studies” is vague because it does not describe the studies in sufficient detail. Do mention the authors’ names or the techniques these studies have used. Sometimes, “study” is used to avoid explaining why you performed that study, or at least, it seems so. Moreover, check if you want to address the studies or the papers that have published those studies. “Studies” and “papers” based on these studies are two separate things. Technically, “paper” implies a formal document that is published, presented, etc. The “study,” on the other hand, is the experiment that was carried out. The paper reports the details of the study, like the methods used in the study, its results, and interpretations derived from the study. Therefore, it is not correct to say “experiments were carried out in the so and so paper”. The experiments were carried out during the study, and not when the paper was written. This: “This” is usually used without specifying what “this” actually is. Such a construction is ambiguous and some journal style guides do not allow it. In some cases, it is pretty obvious what it means. However, it is always better to specify what “this” means. Complicates: “Complicates” can be vague in certain cases. It suggests that either you have little idea of what is going on or you are just lazy to explain things in detail. Instead, describe why you think something is complicated. Prove: You can never “prove” a hypothesis or a mechanism. It can be “tested” and “validated”. Novel: A pathway, a molecule, their functions, etc. cannot be novel. They already exist and you “reveal” it. On the other hand, an experiment or technique can be novel. Understand/examine/investigate/dissect: In general, add the specifics to your sentence. Even if you use these words, ensure that you do not use them instead of explaining the experiment that you carried out. Modulate/coupled/linked/influence/affect/interact/relationship/interplay/dynamics: Efficient/optimal/significant: Try to attach a number to such words. Mention the p-value. The same goes for the words “increase” and “decrease”. Avoid using “significant” to mean “big” or “major”. It is too easily confused with the results of a statistical test. Even if you are reporting the results of a statistical test, it’s better to report the numerical results instead. In fact, best to avoid "significantly" entirely. Architecture: “Architecture” is again a vague term. It does not give any idea about the aspect of the architecture you are talking about. Other words to avoid and explain them explicitly instead are super, better, worse, good, poor, insight, landscape, robust, impactful, belief, unclear, information, paradigm, and issue. All said, these are just guidelines and not a set of rules. Most of this came from: https://web.archive.org/web/20200107232112/http://matt.might.net/articles/shell-scripts-for-passive-voice-weasel-words-duplicates/

by Darko Savic on Jul 30, 2020

Formatting and presentation

Here are some pointers from Michael White (a reviewer at Nature) regarding presenting scientific literature: Using big fonts makes the paper easy to read. Use a font that provides about 12-15 words per line of text. Use continuous line numbers. It is easy to refer to line numbers when initiating or following a discussion. A rule of thumb might be to use an acronym if the phrase is used at least five times. Do use common acronyms like DNA, RNA, etc. Avoid inventing acronyms that are unique to your article. Try to use colors in a way that won’t create problems for the readers with some form of color blindness. First, decide whether your figure needs to have colors. If shades of grey can suffice, avoid colors. If you have to use colors, replace red with magenta and green with turquoise as they can be distinguished by people with red and green forms of color blindness (they are the most common forms of color blindness). Also, use divergent colors when appropriate. Use declarative titles for your articles as well as any inland images, text boxes, and tables. Instead of a hypothetical title like “Rapamycin and aging” try “Rapamycin decelerates aging”.

by Darko Savic on Jul 30, 2020

References and citation styles

You need to refer to other peer-reviewed publications and mention them at the end of your write-up. References serve to support your statements and also differentiate your results, interpretation, and speculations from what your peers have reported in the past. Use a reference management tool such as Mendeley, Zotero, Papers, Qiqqa, Sente, paperpile, etc. There are many citation styles that can be used to write references like MLA, APA, Chicago, Harvard, just to name a few. These guides go into more detail: https://www.citethisforme.com/guides.

by Dragan Otasevic on Jul 30, 2020

Distinguishing between science and pseudo-science

Scientific methodology is well-suited, perhaps uniquely so, for building reliable knowledge and for avoiding false beliefs. Under the assumption that science has this kind of power, one of the problems with pseudoscience is that it gets unfair credibility by mimicking the surface appearance of science. However, we should not dismiss pseudo-science as utterly useless, uninteresting, or false. It is just not science. The big difference Karl Popper identifies between science and pseudo-science is a difference in attitude. While pseudo-science is set up to look for evidence that supports its claims, science is set up to challenge its claims and look for evidence that might prove it false. In other words, pseudo-science seeks confirmations, and science seeks falsifications. What this means is that you could do a test that shows a scientific claim to be false, but no conceivable test could show a pseudoscientific claim to be false. Sciences are testable, pseudo-sciences are not. We can find evidence to establish with certainty that a claim is false. However, we can never (due to the problem of induction) find evidence to establish with certainty that a claim is true. So scientists should realize that their best hypotheses and theories are always tentative and some piece of future evidence could prove them false; while the pseudo-scientists are sure that their theories have been proven true. But they haven't been due to the problem of induction again. Why does this difference between science and pseudo-science matter? As Popper notes, the important difference seems to be in which approach gives better logical justification for knowledge claims. Popper is not saying that science never makes false claims. What he is saying is that the scientific attitude is aimed at locating and removing the false claims, something that does not happen in pseudo-sciences. Another important detail is just what scientists mean by "theory". A theory is simply a scientific account (or description, or story) about a system or a piece of the world. Typically, a theory will contain a number of hypotheses. The important thing to note is that theories can be rather speculative or extremely well tested, but they are still theories. There is no threshold a theory crosses to become a fact, or truth, or something more-certain-than-a-theory. You cannot be 100% sure that a theory is true. Of course, there is some uncertainty with all scientific theories. Of course, there are certain claims the theory makes that might turn out to be false, but the fact that there is evidence we could demonstrate these claims are false is a scientific virtue. Most of this advice came from Janet D. Stemwedel.

by Darko Savic on Jul 30, 2020

Cut the crap

Monitor your word count. The reader’s time should go toward understanding the topic better. It should not be wasted in reading something you felt like writing. Writers tend to be so tied to their material and have spent so much time writing that it can be difficult to cut copy to fit the word count. The following are some tips for cutting back once you are done writing. Start with the big picture. Look for entire sections first, then paragraphs, sentences, and words. It is much easier to cut an entire section of your writing that just doesn’t seem to fit or seem necessary in a smaller word count. Large sections that you cut now can be saved for later use and may form the basis for follow-up work. Summarize, summarize, summarize. Summarization is a huge part of the cutting process. Anything (long quotes, descriptions, illustrations that take up space, etc.) that can be summarized in a few sentences and still prove effective should be done. Cut out repetition. Many writers follow the “presentation model” where they tell what they are going to say, say what they want, and then tell again what they just told the audience. Even while writing a scientific paper, authors repeat sentences, for example from the results in the discussion section. Avoid such repetition. Chop ancillary topics. Keep your main idea in front of you and omit anything that does not address your main idea.

by Darko Savic on Jul 30, 2020

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Darko Savic 6 days ago

this guide needs a good section on cognitive biases and logical fallacies. The cognitive biases part can be a summary of this article https://medium.com/better-humans/cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet-55a472476b18...