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Dental Research - Public Health: Reading the Literature

Resources and tools to inform your research and work.

Articles - Dissected

Not all journal articles are created equal.  While all articles published in peer reviewed journals have undergone some level of editorial scrutiny, there is no guarantee that the conclusions or results presented in the article are a) valid or b) relevant to your particular question or research need.

In order to effectively assess the quality/relevance of a journal article, it is helpful to understand how they are constructed, and what to look for.  In general, research articles follow this format:


A brief paragraph at the beginning of the article.  A well-written abstract should include a summary of the important elements of the article: what research question/hypothesis is being examined; what research methodology was used and what population was studied; the results of the study; major implications (if any) of the results.

Reading an abstract will give you an excellent idea as to whether or not the article is relevant to your question.  Ask:

  • Is the article's question/hypothesis related to mine?
  • Did the researchers study a population that is similar to mine?
  • Did they use the appropriate methodology?
  • Do the results appears to have any serious clinical implications?
  • Do the results support the stated implications?
Introduction/Review of Literature

This first section of the article will provide background information about: the need for the research/study; the results (if any) of previous research on the same topic; and, what the researchers hope to accomplish with this study. 

  • If the research covers an area that you are not familiar with, make note of any related studies mentioned in the review of literature and look at them later.
  • Think about whether this study/research is really relevant to your question - the researchers may have a different purpose than you do, but the results of the study could still be applicable to your question.

This section will outline the specific research methodology used by the authors.  Ask:

  • Is the methodology appropriate for the type of question?
  • Is the population appropriate for answering the question - and is it relevant to your question?
  • Is the number of participants in the study adequate for the results to be statistically significant?
  • Is there any evidence of bias in the way the research was conducted?

This section will describe the results of the research, as well as the statistical analyses used by the researchers.  Ask:

  • Do the results appear to be statistically significant?
  • Do the results prove/disprove the researchers' question/hypothesis?
  • Do the results appear to have significance to clinical practice?
  • Is the math right? (It usually will be, but it nevers hurts to check occasionally if something doesn't seem quite right).

The final section of the article will restate the researchers' question/hypothesis, and discuss whether or not the results of the study provide significant evidence to answer that question.  The authors will also discuss the clinical implications of the study, as well as suggestions for further research on the topic.  Ask:

  • Are the conclusions consistent with the data?
  • Are the stated clinical implications reasonable, based on the research?
  • Are any potential problems/sources of bias/etc addressed by the researchers?


Need Help?


Here are some sites that offer additional tips on reading journal articles: