Is it good research? New online tool launched to help people tell good science from bad

8th August 2016

What’s the difference between good and bad quality research? Why do the findings in one study appear to contradict the results in another? Which piece of expert advice should I really trust?

Although health research appears in the media almost every day, most people find it difficult to know which studies are good quality, and which ones are not. At present, only a small section of society, mainly clinicians and researchers, are taught how to critically appraise scientific health evidence.

Now academics behind a new online tool that will help people “ask the right questions” and “understand and evaluate” health research, hope to change that.

Understanding Health Research is a new website which has been created by the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow in collaboration with an advisory panel of academics. The site, which is launched today, offers a free, interactive, online service designed to help people better understand complex health research and “go beyond the headlines”.

Designed to be useful for a range of people including patients, carers, students, policymakers, health professionals, researchers and those working in the third sector, the site guides users through the process of understanding health research.

Users are presented with a step-by-step series of questions to answer about the piece of research they are interested in, and given guidance on what these questions mean, and why the answers matter to them. The line of questioning adapts based on the answers given, and attempts to raise critical thinking about what to look out for when trying to work out what might be good research, such as funding sources, peer review, and ethics, as well as asking about the specific type of research being appraised.

Ultimately the site hopes to further understanding of a piece of published health research, explaining and reinforcing key scientific concepts along the way.

At the end of the process, the user is provided with a summary of their answers so that they can use these to come to their own conclusions about the research they have been looking at.

Dr Shona Hilton, Deputy Director MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, said: “Understanding Health Research is a tool that can really help people to ask the right questions to understand and evaluate research studies.

“Without the tools to assess contradictory health messages and claims about new discoveries and treatments, the public are vulnerable to false hope, emotional distress, financial exploitation and serious health risks.”

With an increasing focus on ‘open access’ publishing in science, scientific health research is easier to access than ever, but the content of research remains largely inaccessible to people without scientific training.

The Understanding Health Research site also provides succinct, Plain English introductions to complex scientific concepts and links to resources that help promote health literacy.

Dr David Ogilvie, MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge, said: “More and more scientific papers are out there on the internet, freely available for anyone to read. But providing access to papers is not the same thing as making research accessible to people.

“Tools like Understanding Health Research can help make science more democratic and more useful by making it easier for people to engage with it, whether they work with health evidence in their jobs or are just interested citizens.”

Access to the Understanding Health Research website is is available via

Understanding Health Research was developed by the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow with an advisory panel. Charity Sense about Science ( is supporting the promotion of this resource as part of its Ask for Evidence campaign (

The team included: Dr Shona Hilton, MRC/CSO SPHSU; Prof Sally Macintyre MRC/CSO SPHSU (now retired); Dr David Ogilvie, Centre for Diet and Activity Research, MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge; Prof. Mark Petticrew, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Prof. Susan Jebb, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford; Dr Amy Nimegeer, MRC/CSO SPHSU; Chris Patterson, MRC/CSO SPHSU; and Lindsay Hogg, (formerly with) MRC/CSO SPHSU.

First published: 8 August 2016

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