"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, August 20, 2012

What Is Genuine Research?

The word "research" has been used loosely. Supporting an argument has been reduced to a simple search over the internet. In high school, "research" is indeed used to describe an activity that primarily involves looking over books, journals or nowadays, the world-wide web.

In higher education, "research" is different. It actually involves finding the answers that are not available yet. To illustrate this, I have picked one specific example. The question is: "Does abstinence-only sex education work?". It is a timely question. Can we search the internet for the answer? Of course, we can, but answering this question in this manner is not genuine research. What constitutes original research is formulating the question, designing an experiment that will help address the formulated question, and analyzing the results at the end. And this is exactly what John B. Jemmott, III, PhD; Loretta S. Jemmott, PhD, RN; Geoffrey T. Fong, PhD have done in a published work:

Downloaded from  http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=382798
Downloaded from  http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1263349

The above is presented here to illustrate what research really is, how it is designed, and how the results are disseminated. The abstract (which serves as a summary of a research article) is as follows:

Objective  To evaluate the efficacy of an abstinence-only intervention in preventing sexual involvement in young adolescents.
Design  Randomized controlled trial.
Setting  Urban public schools.
Participants  A total of 662 African American students in grades 6 and 7.
Interventions  An 8-hour abstinence-only intervention targeted reduced sexual intercourse; an 8-hour safer sex–only intervention targeted increased condom use; 8-hour and 12-hour comprehensive interventions targeted sexual intercourse and condom use; and an 8-hour health-promotion control intervention targeted health issues unrelated to sexual behavior. Participants also were randomized to receive or not receive an intervention maintenance program to extend intervention efficacy.
Outcome Measures  The primary outcome was self-report of ever having sexual intercourse by the 24-month follow-up. Secondary outcomes were other sexual behaviors.
Results  The participants' mean age was 12.2 years; 53.5% were girls; and 84.4% were still enrolled at 24 months. Abstinence-only intervention reduced sexual initiation (risk ratio [RR], 0.67; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.48-0.96). The model-estimated probability of ever having sexual intercourse by the 24-month follow-up was 33.5% in the abstinence-only intervention and 48.5% in the control group. Fewer abstinence-only intervention participants (20.6%) than control participants (29.0%) reported having coitus in the previous 3 months during the follow-up period (RR, 0.94; 95% CI, 0.90-0.99). Abstinence-only intervention did not affect condom use. The 8-hour (RR, 0.96; 95% CI, 0.92-1.00) and 12-hour comprehensive (RR, 0.95; 95% CI, 0.91-0.99) interventions reduced reports of having multiple partners compared with the control group. No other differences between interventions and controls were significant.
Conclusion  Theory-based abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in preventing adolescent sexual involvement.

The article is "free", which means it does not require a subscription to access the full version. So anyone could click on the link provided as a caption (http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=382798) and read the entire article. The design of the experiment is described in great detail, demonstrating the need to control carefully factors that may affect results. This is quite different from simple statistics. Variables are identified and a thoughtful consideration is made such that the results will indeed answer the question that was raised. Another feature of research is its unbiased nature. The bias can easily come from the funding source behind the research. The research cited here was funded by the National Institutes of Health. At the end of this publication, one would see the following:

Financial Disclosure: None reported.
Funding/Support: This study was supported by grant R01 MH062049 from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Role of the Sponsors: The NIMH had no role in study design; collection, analysis, or interpretation of data; or the writing of the article.
Disclaimer: This article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIMH.

Last but not the least, research work before it could be published needs to be peer-reviewed. This article went through such process. An article submitted for publication is first sent to the editor or one of the associate editors of the journal for consideration.  If the article seems fit to be considered, the editor then sends the manuscript to two or three experts in the field who can then evaluate competently the merits of the paper under consideration. These are the peer-reviewers. Only with a recommendation from these peer-reviewers would a manuscript be published. The paper could be rejected and this does not happen only rarely. Oftentimes, a paper could be accepted after being modified. The peer reviewers can recommend changes to correct errors in the original manuscript. The journal is overseen by a board of editors, who are likewise recognized experts in the field in which materials in the journal are being published. In this particular journal, members of its editorial board are found in this link.

It takes a lot to do research. It is expensive. It is time-consuming. However, if one is asking the same question, "Does abstinence-only sex education work?", the above paper is very useful. And this hopefully illustrates why original research is so important. It is reliable. One is not just quoting a blogger. This is an example of a true primary source.

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