I recently edited a manuscript for an observational study. The journal the authors wanted to submit to required the abstract to have a “design” section that explicitly stated the study’s design, such as randomized controlled trial or prospective observational study. They said the reason they wanted authors to include this section – and I found this interesting – was to encourage them to really reflect on the contribution they are making to the literature.
By the time you get through running analyses and writing a manuscript for a research project, it might have been a few years since the conception and design of the project. That’s a long time to remember the original motivation for engaging in it. In my own experience, I have found it easy to 1) get caught up in how much better the study could have been designed to answer the question and 2) allow the pressure of publishing interesting, field-changing research to cloud the true rationale of the project.
I have felt this pressure before. For some reason, I have felt the desire to change my rationale later on to something that seems more meaningful and groundbreaking. But it’s not the actual story. Telling the real story is so much easier, and I think authenticity shows. Also, most people would probably have thought my original rationale was sound. After all, I didn’t come up with it by myself. I had a whole lab and PhD committee checking my work!
While the gold standard of studies in medical/health research is the double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial, this certainly would not describe most studies that make up the scientific literature. First of all, not every study can be “high quality” like this; you can’t randomly assign pregnant women to drink alcohol at different doses to try to find a safe amount.
But also, there are studies with “weaker” designs that make very significant contributions: you just have to realize that the contribution is not establishing a cause-effect relationship. The contribution can range from presenting rationale for designing a higher quality study later (very important), or it can be a perspective-changing piece that catalyzes other researchers simply to think about things a little differently (e.g. just showing that a variable matters and should begin to be measured in future studies, even if we don’t know yet how it actually affects an outcome).
So, here’s my advice:
Other ideas that have worked for you? Comment below!