After spending many hours wasting my time from one research paper to another Marc Cousin came with some solutions on how to write a proper essay.

Especially when writing about research, one has to separate science from self justification. The fact that you like an idea doesn’t mean that it is scientifically valid. If you attach to an idea you can loose the big picture and loose your objectiveness. Also, it is important to take into account that association is not cause. Quoting Marc, ‘firefighters don’t start fires’ although there is a strong association between them.

Your main aim is to constructively ‘destroy’ your hypothesis; this is accept the null hypothesis. A good way of exemplifying this is bowling. When you’ve thrown all your bowling balls and hit all of your bowling pins, if one of them stands up, it is most likely that that idea (bowling pin) will stand up as well in the scientific world. Once you have an idea on what you want to write about define the SCOPE of your write-up. This is, define the search terms you are going to use so the results you find are in tune with your topic. This keeps you on the right track and saves time reading unnecessary articles and books.

Now, if your search terms throws hundreds, or even thousands, of results your can narrow down your search terms; but don’t forget to make this point extremely clear in your introduction. An example could be an essay that evaluates management of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). As you can imagine this is an extremely long topic so you could narrow down your search by only looking at peer reviewed articles, or only looking at randomized control trials, or searching for specific headlines (or reviews), or evaluating conclusions only.

An easy way to do this is having a look at the abstracts of the research papers. This is a great way to narrow your findings using keywords. Following up on the example of CHD the link ahead shows an abstract for Screening for Intermediate Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease. In here you will see a structured summary of the research paper which will give you insights on what the paper is about, saving you time reading the whole of the paper.

This process will simplify your job but might also require you change your title. Once you have narrowed down your SCOPE, and redefined your title, it is time to use your analytic skills and evaluate the statistical power of the articles, approach them in a scientific way, be objective and consider if the research could be done in a different way.

Start by summarizing each article into one single paragraph stating WHATWHOHOW and WHY the study was done and what where the conclusions the authors have drawn from it. Begin by summarizing the clearest articles and those of better quality, leaving the ‘bad’ or complicated ones for the end. This will give you the best insights on the topic and will make it easier to summarize and discuss those you consider are of lower quality or more complicated.

A good idea is to separate your summaries in different documents and cluster them in an appropriate way; such as those that are good, reasonable or bad; those that are inconclusive, etc. Now you will have a collection of summarized articles, clustered in categories, which allow you to approach them critically and discuss from them in your next section. Don’t forget to state in your introduction the SCOPE of your study, why your have narrowed down to those particular search terms or key words (you could consider adding your key words in your write up as well); and also state why other studies (which use other methods) have been rejected. This will show that you have an understanding of the big picture, but that you acknowledge that the scope would be too big for your time or number of words.

After discussing the articles, draw your conclusions and suggest possible ways the studies could have been preformed in a better way.

Finally preform your proof reading, but do it one at a time. First (as an example) read your sentences (and paragraphs) and evaluate if they make sense, correcting them if necessary. Then, you might want to have a look at your spelling, then punctuation and also the grammar. But, keep it separate, the brain finds it hard to do everything at the same time.

I do hope this post helps you with your write ups as it has helped me. Feel free to contact me for any suggestions on how to improve it.

This post is a summary of Marc Cousin’s workshop. I do hope we can have another one with him before we write our protocol. Thank you Mark for your insights.