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Making Sense of Research Studies

You are probably used to hearing media reports about breast cancer and its causes. For example, the media often report on research advances or studies that link particular types of food with a reduced risk of breast cancer.

In this section of the website, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation offers you tips for how to evaluate secondary sources of information about breast cancer research, such as media reports. We also provide you with information on how to evaluate the primary sources, the research articles themselves.

Evaluating Media Reports: Questions to Ask Yourself

Media reports about breast cancer research or the findings of a new study can often be more confusing, contradictory or sensational than informative. Research studies are complex. When new breast cancer research findings are described by the media, they often simplify or may just focus on one part of the study without explaining nuances of the results or putting them into context based on other research findings. This can distort the facts about the research, and should be viewed with a critical eye. Media reports rarely provide all the details you need to evaluate new research.

As you read media reports about research on breast health and breast cancer, consider the following questions to help you assess the reporting:

  1. Who is the author and what is their background? Does their expertise include science writing or health reporting?

  2. What are the media report’s sources of information? Are they credible sources?

  3. What does the media report tell you about the research? Does it provide information about the type of research study, what was done, when, where, how many people were studied, key findings and conclusions as well as research gaps or limitations?

  4. Does the media report contain enough information for you to evaluate the merits and limitations of the research?

  5. Does it give you different points of view from experts not involved in the study?

  6. Does it refer to other studies in the same field of research to give you a clearer picture of the context, including debates in the field?

  7. Is the subject matter sensationalized to attract attention?

  8. When you look closer, is the report actually an advertisement that is trying to sell you something?

  9. Does the publication or author have a particular agenda or political perspective that may bias their reporting?

Evaluating Research: Questions to Ask Yourself

The best way to evaluate research is to read the primary source, the original published study that the media report was based on.

Research studies are often published in academic journals that focus on a specific subject area. These journals are available online and in print. Unless you work at or are affiliated with a hospital or academic institution (e.g. a university), many academic journals require you to pay a fee to access research articles if you do not have a subscription. However, there are also many research articles, or at least their summary or abstract, that are available for free online.  The number of open access articles (unrestricted online access to a research article) is increasing, making research findings more readily available.

Before getting published in these specialized journals, articles are reviewed by other experts in the subject to ensure that the research is sound and unbiased – this is known as “peer review.” Medical and health journals provide a place for researchers and experts to debate ideas. Usually a number of studies are published on a topic before the idea is accepted as conclusive evidence and used to inform practice.  

By going to the source and reading original research articles, you will be able to access the fuller details and context beyond the media reports. This may help you to evaluate the research. As you read research articles, consider the following questions:

  1. Who owns or publishes the journal?  Is the journal credible and seen as a source of authority?
    Journals that use a peer-review process or that are published by a university press, professional society, or a scientific publisher will have more credibility.

  2. Who wrote the research article and what are their credentials?
    What is their education, experience in this area, and have they published any other articles?

  3. Who funded the research?
    Does it look as though it was an independent source of funding (e.g., a charitable foundation or government) or a commercial or industry source? Funding from independent sources, or where the authors state that the funder had no role in how the research study was designed and carried out, are less likely to have their results influenced by special interest groups like a pharmaceutical company, for example.

  4. How current is it?
    Is there more up-to-date information available that has been published since that time?

  5. Was the research done on people, animals or cellsCell:
    The basic structural and functional unit of all organisms.
    ?

    Research about health and disease that involves humans is more likely to reflect what happens in people. Research on animals and cells is very early-stage research that may show promise, but has not yet been proven in humans.

  6. How many people were studied, and for how long?
    If the results of a study show that the same effect occurred in a large number of people and over a long period of time, the results are more likely to reflect what occurs in people more generally outside the study.

  7. Does the article give you a good understanding of previous research in this area? 
    Previous research done in the area can either support and strengthen the results of a study, or contradict them. More research may need to be done for a result to be accepted as conclusive evidence.

  8. Does the article describe research findings and conclusions as well as its limitations?
    Limitations are potential weaknesses in a study’s design that are usually out of the researcher’s control. Every study will have limitations and a credible research article will acknowledge what they may be and how they may have impacted the results.  A good research study will also explain what was undertaken in the study design to limit or address limitations.

Understanding Common Research Terms

If you are new to reading research articles, it may help you to become familiar with some key research terms. 

Common research methods

  • Quantitative research: this type of research counts things. It generates numerical data and statistics, for example by estimating how many new cases of breast cancer there will be in Canadian women in a given time period. Numbers are an important part of research, but they don’t provide the whole picture.

  • Qualitative research: this type of research tries to provide a picture of the context and complexity of people’s lived experiences, to get at the “how” and the “why,” in addition to the “how much” and “how many.” It focuses on the stories that people tell about their experiences. Qualitative data are gathered with interviews, focus groups, case studies or by observation.

Common types of research studies

  • Experimental research: in an experimental study researchers apply an intervention, such as a certain type of treatment, to cells, animals, or a group of individuals and compare the results with those of another group that does not receive any treatment or receives a different but previously-tested treatment, known as the control group. The researchers manage who receives the intervention and who does not.

One of the most common types of experimental studies in humans is the clinical trial.  Clinical trials are designed to test new ways to prevent, detect, and treat specific diseases. The best and most reliable type of clinical trial is a randomized controlled trial (RCT), which randomly assigns participants to either the treatment group or control group. Randomly assigning people to different groups helps to prevent bias, which is when the results are affected by human choices made during the implementation of the study (e.g. putting more women than men in one group), even when not intentional.

  • Observational research: in an observational study, the researchers observe groups of people engaged in their normal activities, without an intervention controlled by researchers. There are different types of observational studies. 

    • Case-control studies. These compare two groups of people, such as those who have cancer (the case) and those who do not (the control).

    • Cohort studies. These study events as they occur. The researchers monitor a group of people for a long time and track, for example, any new cases of cancer. This approach is often used to study whether certain nutrients or lifestyle behaviours could reduce the risk of cancer.

    • Case-series studies. These studies use detailed descriptions of a patient's diagnosis and treatment history, called case reports. If many patients are given a similar treatment, each case report may be combined to form a case series.

    • Cross-sectional studies. These studies examine the relationship between diseases and other factors (such as exposures or behaviours) within a specific population at one point in time.

    • Meta-analyses. These studies combine the results of several studies on the same topic. By combining studies, a meta-analysis has the ability to find trends that may not be apparent in smaller studies.

 

Sources:

Cancer.net. Understanding Cancer Research Studies, Part I, Part II. Accessed July 6, 2014.

Cancer Society of New Zealand (2010). How to make sense of mixed cancer messages in the media. Accessed July 6, 2014.

Centres of Excellence for Women’s Health (2005). Just the Facts Ma’am. A Women’s Guide for Understanding Evidence about Health and Health Care. Accessed July 6, 2014.

World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Judging the Evidence. In Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Washington DC: AICR, 2007. Accessed July 6, 2014.