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Nurses use research to answer questions about their practice, solve problems, improve the quality of patient care, generate new research questions, and shape health policy. Nurses who confront questions about practice and policy need strong, high-quality, evidence-based research. Research articles in peer-reviewed journals typically undergo a rigorous review process to ensure scholarly standards are met. Nonetheless, standards vary among reviewers and journals. This article presents a framework nurses can use to read and critique a research article.
When deciding to read an article, determine if it’s about a question you have an interest in or if it can be of use in your practice. You may want to have a research article available to read and critique as you consider the following questions.
A good title will pique your interest but typically you will not know until you are done reading the article if the title is an accurate description. An informative title conveys the article’s key concepts, methods, and variables.
The abstract provides a brief overview of the purpose of the study, research questions, methods, results, and conclusions. This helps you decide if it’s an article you want to read. Some people use the abstract to discuss a study and never read further. This is unwise because the abstract is just a preview of the article and may be misleading.
A good introduction provides the basis for the article. It includes a statement of the problem, a rationale for the study, and the research questions. When a hypothesis is being tested, it should be clearly stated and include the expected results.
When a theoretical framework is used, it should inform the study and provide a rationale. The concepts of the theoretical framework should relate to the topic and serve as a basis for interpreting the results. Some research doesn’t use a theoretical framework, such as health services research, which examines issues such as access to care, healthcare costs, and healthcare delivery. Clinical research such as comparing the effectiveness of two drugs won’t include a theoretical framework.
Is the literature review relevant to the study and comprehensive? Does it include recent research?
The literature review provides a context for the study. It establishes what is, and is not known about the research problem. Publication dates are important but there are caveats. Most literature reviews include articles published within the last 3 to 5 years. It can take more than a year for an article to be reviewed, revised, accepted, and published, causing some references to seem outdated.
Literature reviews may include older studies to demonstrate important changes in knowledge over time. In an area of study where little or no research has been conducted, there may be only a few relevant articles that are a decade or more old. In an emerging area of study there may be no published research, in which case related research should be referenced. If you are familiar with the area of research, review the references to determine if well-known and highly regarded studies are included.
The methods section provides enough information to allow the study to be replicated. Components of this section indicate if the design is appropriate to answer the research question(s).
Independent and dependent variables should be described and terms defined. For example, if patient falls in the hospital are considered the dependent variable, or outcome, what are the independent variables, or factors, being investigated that may influence the rate at which patient falls occur? In this example, independent variables might include nurse staffing, registered nurse composition (such as education and certification), and hospital Magnet status.
The analytical approach relates to the study questions and research design. A quantitative study may use descriptive statistics to summarize the data and other tests, such as chi squares, t-tests, or regression analysis, to compare or evaluate the data. A qualitative study may use such approaches as coding, content analysis, or grounded theory analysis. A reader who is unfamiliar with the analytical approach may choose to rely on the expertise of the journal’s peer reviewers who assessed whether the analytical approach was correct.
Results should be clearly summarized in the text, tables, and figures. Tables and figures are only a partial representation of the results and critical information may be only in the text. In a quantitative study, the significance of the statistical tests is important. The presentation of qualitative results should avoid interpretation, which is reserved for the discussion.
It is essential that the limitations of the study be presented. These are the factors that explain why the results may need to be carefully interpreted, may only be generalized to certain situations, or may provide less robust results than anticipated. Examples of limitations include a low response rate to a survey, not being able to establish causality when a cross-sectional study design was used, and having key stakeholders refuse to be interviewed.
The discussion serves as an opportunity to explain the results in respect to the research questions and the theoretical framework. Authors use the discussion to interpret the results and explain the meaning and significance of the study. It’s also important to distinguish the study from others that preceded it and provide recommendations for future research.
Depending on the research, it may be equally important for the investigators to present the clinical and/or practical significance of the results. Relevant policy recommendations are also important. Evaluate if the recommendations are supported by the data or seem to be more of an opinion. A succinct conclusion typically completes the article.
Determine the scientific merit of the study by evaluating the level and quality of the evidence. There are many scales to use, several of which can be found in the Research Toolkit on the American Nurses Association’s website http://www.nursingworld.org/research-toolkit.aspx. Consider what you learned and decide if the study is relevant to your practice or answered your question as well as whether you can implement the findings.