How BCBAs Should Read Research Papers

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Maithri Sivaraman, M.Sc., BCBA

Guest Author

With the advent of digital technology, the Internet is replete with information about various available treatment options for autism. I open my news feed and one of the first things I see is an article about how video games can help children with autism improve their social skills. Is it important to me? Maybe, yes. Is it true? Maybe. Do I provide my child/student with autism opportunities to play video games and hope for his social skills to improve? No, certainly not. From brain scans and drugs to oils and cannabis cookies, we have all had our share of news about autism treatments.  So what should I do to decide what to believe?

Read the research!

Whether one is a parent, a student or a professional in a scientific career, reading research papers is a daunting task. Manuscripts are densely packed with dreary scientific content that can be very hard to follow; plunging into it at breakneck speed is often not the best way to go about attacking a paper. Here is a plan to read a research paper with an agenda of not just understanding it, but also making informed treatment decisions based on the evidence.

1. Understand the purpose of the study – The Abstract section of the manuscript provides a succinct summary of what the authors attempted to do (in science-speak, this is the research question) and whether they succeeded in addressing the problem. It is a brief report of the purpose of the study, the participants, the experimentation technique used and key findings. But it will not be able to provide you with a context for the study. The Introduction does this – it is usually easy to follow and narrates all the previous research pertaining to the questions the authors intend to address. It helps to think of each study mentioned in the Introduction as short stories that provide context for the present study. The last few paragraphs of the Introduction often address the purpose of the experiment, and how it might add to the body of literature.

When you are done reading the Introduction, you want to be aware of the big picture – what are the authors trying to study, and what has been done before by others working on the same questions.

2. Jump ahead to the Discussion – The Discussion is the last section of the paper. This section summarises the findings of the study in terms that are easily understandable, and the researchers’ interpretations of the outcomes. It is the part we have all been waiting for – it outlines how much the authors actually learned through their experiment!

Most authors summarise their findings in the first paragraph of the section. These are the answers to the questions that were put forth in the Introduction. The next few paragraphs will talk about how the results change our understanding of the bigger picture. This is where the authors lend their interpretation to the findings of the study. Bear in mind that these paragraphs reflect the author’s own interpretation. Next come the most important paragraphs that delineate the limitations of the findings, and the need for further research to state certain outcomes with more generality (For example, are the findings applicable to other participants at other settings?). This is key information that affects treatment decisions.

3. Understand the Method of the Experiments  – This is the section that systematically lists the various materials and methods used in the experiment, and is perhaps of utmost importance to scientists. However, at least a superficial understanding of the methodology is essential for consumers in order to make treatment decisions. This is a challenging section and one can expect to spend a lot of time looking up terminology that might be new. Here is where you might catch yourself reading the same sentence over and over again, and have no clue how much time had passed!

The authors will mention the participants, the setting where the study was conducted and the materials used before moving to the methodology. It will also contain a description of the variables used during the study. The procedure section explains how the study was conducted. Use a paper and pencil to jot down the several steps that were carried out. Do you wish to make reading research papers a habit? Create a glossary of new terms that you encounter in every paper that you read.

4. Read the Results, Figures and Tables – At this point you already know what questions the authors were addressing and how successful they were at it. The results and figures allow us to critically examine the outcomes of the study without being affected by the authors’ opinions.  This will likely be difficult at first for a non-scientist, but with some practice it can be quite easy to navigate data. The study might either be using statistical tools to analyse the data or use a visual analysis to understand what is going on with the data.

If statistical tools are used, the authors will describe the data as “non-significant” (occurring due to chance) or “significant” (meaningful outcomes). For studies that use visual analysis, pay close attention to the graphs and tables. Every figure or table comes with a concise caption stating the exact variables being depicted. Graphs are usually in the form of line graphs or bar graphs. Try and copy the graph on to a paper starting with just the X-axis and Y-axis labels. Look for trends in the data – do the data points indicate movement in a certain direction across time? Check back to see whether the data in the graph illustrate the answers the authors set out to seek.

Just remember that even scientists find this section challenging and time-consuming.

Be skeptical

Now that you have individually read all the sections of the paper, spend a few extra minutes glossing over the entire article sequentially. Remember that this is just the tip of the iceberg – one article among all the research in the world on the topic. The References are a compendium of all the research cited in the article. They are excellent resources for further reading and can be found on online databases.

Try to use your own judgement to decide whether the study makes sense. Don’t be afraid to contact the authors for further clarification as you might find them surprisingly welcoming of questions. In general, it is always safe to be skeptical when evaluating research. Steer clear of making decisions based on eyeball-grabbing sensationalism; your child/student with autism deserves better.

How do you prefer to read research articles?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Recommended Reading

Girden, E.R. (2001). Evaluating Research Articles From Start to Finish. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


Maithri Sivaraman is an Engineer turned BCBA with a Masters in Psychology from the University of Madras. She currently runs ‘Tendrils Centre for Autism Research and Intervention’ which is a registered resource center providing behavior analytic services to families in Chennai, India, conducting workshops, and supervising students pursuing certification. She has published scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals and has been authoring a column for the ‘Autism Network’, India’s quarterly autism newsletter. As the International Dissemination Coordinator at the Association for Science in Autism Treatment she has been involved in the dissemination of evidence-based treatments writing articles for their newsletter and responding to media reports that highlight treatments for autism.

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  1. I love this post! This is very similar to how I read a new article. One difference is that after the intro, I move to the results befor the discussion. I like to be able to interpret the data before the researcher interprets it for me. Then I will go to the discussion and back to the results again. I like to test my visual analysis skills and then see if it matches what the authors thought as well.
    Very well written article! Thank you for posting.

  2. I like that you are encouraging BCBAs to read articles! I advise students to look at the figure after the abstract. In most behavior analytic studies, you can get a very clear picture of the methods and results just by viewing the figures.

  3. This is a fantastic article! The advice is really helpful for the challenging task of reading research articles as they can be something of a ‘dry’ read. Thank you so much for writing this!

  4. I cant say I’ve much of method when it comes to reading research papers. I usually follow the above more or less, sometimes reading the start by reading the beginning and end of the intro to decide if the study is relevant for my purposes at all. Then I read the beginning of the discussion to find out the outcomes so I’ll get a better understanding of what actually happened. This also facilities my reading of the results section. I find most graphs difficult to follow and I have to keep referencing back to the methodology to actually understand what was being measures and what happened. One of the most interesting pieces of advice of the article is to contact the researchers. I’ve had to do this and been very surprised at their willingness to engage.

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