From the Editor

May and June, 1999

Critically reading the scientific literature: Reading the title and summary

In my column last month, I began a series of discussions of how to critically read the scientific literature. In this, the second article in that series, I will suggest ways to approach the task of reading an original research report.

Time is limited, so our first reading task is to decide whether to read the article. Whether or not we notice, we make this decision in a systematic, stepwise fashion, and the title and summary can provide useful information for this decision making process. At each step we determine whether to move forward through the manuscript or on to the next.

First, we read the title to see if the subject matter interests us. The title is meant to convey the main topic and the scope of the project. Then, we make a subjective assessment of the authors' credibility, based on our opinion of the scientific merit of their previous work.

If we still wish to continue, we review the summary. The summaries in Swine Health and Production are a synopsis of the article and, in original research articles, are clearly separated into objectives, methods, results, and implications.

We must decide whether the objectives are clearly stated and, if so, whether we are interested in the outcome. The target population is the group of pigs or farms to which the author applied his or her results. If these pigs are similar to those that you work with, then you will want to proceed.

The methods portion of the summary section provides a sketch of the study design and provides details about whether the results will apply to the pigs in your practice area. However, this section alone will not provide enough material to critically evaluate the study.

The summary of the results in essence gives the bullet points of results. Neither the results nor the implications can be evaluated without reading the materials and methods section of the paper. However, the "shorthand" version of these sections in the summary should provide the reader with the information necessary to decide whether to evaluate the whole paper.

The title and summary are not merely ancillary; they can provide valuable information in making the initial decision to take the time to read an article. Perhaps most importantly, reading them can activate your expectations of what will follow, making the rest of your reading task easier.

In future editorials I will discuss how to critically read case reports, field trials, observational studies, and laboratory research reports.