Research paper types and validity

Though they may be designated by slightly different sets of names, research papers in the biological and medical sciences fall into four general categories -research articles, case histories, reviews, and case-series analyses - and shorter variants with such titles as research notes or brief communications. Each category is most appropriate for different sorts of messages.

Research articles and case histories are the usual avenue for valid publication of original results. Both types of papers are based on one's own experiences. A research article generally presents new data obtained through experimentation or observation. A case history usually covers such subjects as a unique, previously undescribed syndrome or disease, new information on an illness, an unsuspected causal relationship, or an unexpected outcome such as a possible therapeutic or adverse drug effect. The study may be retrospective (analyzing previously accumulated data) or prospective (with a design that pre-dates data collection).

Satisfying a requirement for valid publication, research articles and case histories have a specific set of defining characteristics. Both are structured with distinctive sections that parallel the sequence of a critical argument. They present a question (sometimes formally stated as a hypothesis). They marshal evidence to support various possible answers to the question. Finally, they attempt to persuade the reader of the truth of a particular choice of answers.

Review articles and case-series analyses, on the other hand, cover principally other scientists' discoveries rather than one's own. This is not to downplay their importance, nor to suggest that they are in any way "invalid" or second-rate. Reviews, such as those found in the "Annual Review of. . ." series, perform a valuable role by synthesizing the results of a search through literature or other records. Reviews can be particularly valuable to someone entering a subject for the first time, and for communication between scientists. They can also introduce new ways of looking at a topic, and point out flaws or gaps in scientific understanding or in the published literature.

The structure and format of reviews and other summary analyses are less standardized than those of a research article. If there is a "methods" section, it often states the manner and extent of the search. If a series of cases is being included, it often tells what records were accessed. The organizational sequence of these papers depends on the topic. Commonly, items are covered either in chronological order, from general to particular, or from frequent occurrence to rare. Both reviews and case-series analyses may yield new insights, hypotheses, and understanding, and in that sense they also constitute "valid" original research.

What is a "primary journal or other source document that is readily available within the scientific community"? Primary and secondary has nothing to do with quality or importance. Rather, a primary journal is merely one that details firsthand information reported by people directly involved with an action or event. A secondary journal presents information that does not come directly from people involved in the action or event. Rather, a person two or three steps removed from the source reports the information. Some of these publications are significant sources of communication among scientists and the educated public, particularly now that the Internet provides increased accessibility to them.

Popular articles - secondary accounts designed to entertain as well as to inform - may not adhere to the rigorous standards of regular scientific articles. They typically offer only a condensed overview of the methodology used and a summary of the major findings, without presenting actual data. For these reasons, popular articles do not generally constitute valid publication. However, writing or providing consultation for popular articles based on validly published scientific research should be an important part of a scientist's outreach activities to the wider community that supports his or her work.

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