Navigating the Forest of Research Papers: A Beginner’s Guide

Blog by Sharleen O’Reilly and Kate Wall

As you delve into the world of research, you’ll encounter a vast expanse of information, much like a dense forest filled with trees. Thousands of research papers are published every day and while this wealth of knowledge can be overwhelming, it’s essential to develop the skills to navigate this forest effectively. Just as a skilled hiker can navigate through the terrain, you can cultivate the ability to sift through research papers, extracting the valuable insights that lie within.

Understanding the Research Paper Hierarchy

Imagine the different types of research papers as trees within the forest. Some trees stand tall and sturdy, providing reliable information, while others may be more fragile or prone to swaying with the wind of bias or error. The hierarchy of evidence helps us distinguish between these trees, guiding us towards the most robust and trustworthy sources of information.

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) such as the Bump2Baby and Me trial, often referred to as the “gold standard” of research, are like towering oak trees. They offer the most rigorous method of hypothesis testing, minimising the effects of bias and ensuring precision. However, be mindful that even RCTs can vary in quality, so it’s crucial to assess the overall strength of the study.


Case studies, on the other hand, are like small shrubs or bushes. They provide detailed accounts of individual cases, offering insights into specific experiences. While case studies can be insightful, they may not generalise to a wider population, limiting their applicability.


Surveys, resembling leafy branches, can provide valuable information about the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviours of a particular group of people. However, it’s essential to consider the sample size and methodology to ensure the survey’s findings are reliable.


Literature Reviews, like an expansive aerial view of woods, provide a comprehensive overview of a particular topic. They systematically synthesise existing research, identifying patterns and trends by doing meta-analyses*. However, be cautious of more narrative literature reviews as they may lack critical analysis or cherry-pick evidence to support a particular viewpoint.

*statistical approach to looking at specific measurements

Taking Your First Steps on the Forest Trail

Picture yourself embarking on a hike through a research forest. If you focus solely on the path beneath your feet, you might miss out on the stunning scenery, the diverse wildlife, and the unique ecosystem that surrounds you. But if you occasionally pause and look up, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the forest’s vastness and interconnectedness.

Similarly, in our research journey, we often get bogged down in the specific details of individual studies. To gain a comprehensive understanding of a topic, it’s essential to step back and consider the broader context.

Key Sections of a Research Paper

A research paper is divided into sections to break down the research that has been conducted into its separate elements.

Figure based on ‘Anatomy of a Research Paper’ from


Title: The title should summarise the main aim and purpose of the research study and so should give you a good idea of whether this is a paper that will be of interest for you to read.

Abstract: The abstract is a summary of the research paper, outlining the main points of the study. This provides a quick overview of the study and can be helpful for you to understand if this paper is worth reading more of.

Introduction: The introduction is there to set the stage. This section looks to explain the current understanding of this area of research, what is already known or proven and why further research is needed. It provides the context for why this current study has been undertaken and is a useful section to increase your overall understanding of the topic in question.

Methods: This is possibly one of the most important sections of the paper. The methods section provides information on the participants and study design. The study design should provide enough detail so other researchers can repeat the study if they want. Key information will include the study duration, how recruitment happened, what characteristics made a person eligible or ineligible for the study, what the outcomes are and how they will be measured. This section will also describe the statistics or analysis performed. A study should aim to have a large enough sample size to be able to say that the results were sufficiently powered to detect a difference between the study groups if one is present.

Results: The results section covers the key findings from the study. This section is data-driven, rather than subjective analysis. You will often see the results in different forms such as tables or graphs.


A p-value is a measure of the likelihood that an observed effect is due to chance. The  p-value is typically set at 0.05, meaning that there is a 5% or less chance of the observed effect occurring by chance. A lower p-value indicates a stronger statistical significance.

Statistically significant results may not always be clinically meaningful. For instance, a statistically significant weight loss may not be substantial enough to have a real-world impact.


Confounders are variables that could influence the relationship between the variables being studied. Researchers should account for potential confounders to ensure the validity of their conclusions.

For example, if you were studying the effect of processed food on cardiovascular disease (CVD) events, smoking could be another variable that may impact the outcome of CVDs and therefore needs to be considered to have confidence that the results seen were due to the processed food and not confounded by the fact that person smoked.


External validity, also known as applicability or generalisability, refers to the extent to which the findings of a study can be applied to a broader population under real-world conditions. A larger and more diverse sample is more likely to have external validity.

For example, if two studies showed a statistically significant result but one study was conducted with a large sample size and different ethnicities/global communities and one study had a small sample size using only women from a small community in Africa, then it would be fair to assume that the results of the first study are more likely to have external validity and be generalisable.  Whereas, in the second study, we can only really conclude that this effect is seen in women in this specific African community and further research would be needed to see if we could replicate this in other groups.


Discussion/Conclusion: After presenting the results, the researcher will discuss them in the context of the research area and elucidate their interpretation of the results. This is where they can highlight the strengths and limitations of their study and suggest further areas of research to progress their findings or to make the research more generalisable.

Conflicts of Interest: If these exist, then they are usually disclosed at the end of the paper. The most obvious conflict of interest (COI) is financial. Independent funding can be difficult to obtain in certain fields and therefore funding may be sponsored by a company with a vested interest in that area of research. This does not always mean that the research is invalid because often researchers are completing the research independently and the results are presented with transparency. You can use what you have learnt in this blog to identify if the COI may be impacting the quality of the research.

Critically Appraising Research Papers

Just as a hiker needs to be prepared for the challenges of the terrain, we need to be prepared to critically appraise research papers. This involves evaluating the quality of the research methods, assessing the validity and reliability of the findings, and considering the potential for bias or error.

Key Factors to Consider:

  • Study Design: Is the study design appropriate for the research question? Are there any potential limitations or weaknesses in the design?
  • Data Collection: How were the data collected? Was the data collection method reliable and valid?
  • Statistical Analysis: Are the statistical methods appropriate for the data? Are the results statistically significant?
  • Interpretation of Findings: Are the findings interpreted correctly? Are there any alternative explanations for the results?
  • Limitations and Strengths: Are the limitations of the study acknowledged? Are there any strengths that make the study credible?

Beyond the Research Paper

Just as a hiker may seek information from maps or guides, we can also rely on additional sources to validate the findings of research papers. These sources include:

  • Peer Review: Was the paper subjected to peer review by independent experts?
  • Journal Reputation: Is the journal in which the paper is published reputable and well-respected? Measures like impact factor tell you about the journal’s readership.
  • Scientific Rigour: Does the paper use best practice reporting guidelines such as CONSORT, PRISMA, or STROBE?
  • Layperson Summaries: Are there layperson summaries available to make the research accessible to a wider audience?

Embracing the Journey

Navigating the forest of research papers can be challenging, but it’s an essential skill for anyone seeking knowledge and understanding. By adopting a critical mindset, using the hierarchy of evidence, and considering the broader context, we can effectively appraise research papers and extract valuable insights from the vast expanse of information. Just as a skilled hiker can appreciate the beauty and diversity of a forest, we can all appreciate the richness and complexity of the research landscape.