This section specifically focuses on published research and provides you with a framework for reading, analyzing, and evaluating research articles. There is a standard format used for reporting research in most professional, peer-reviewed journals. This format provides signs that will guide you once you understand what the signs mean. In this context, the signs are the named sections within the standard format. As you will read below, each section has a clear purpose for the researcher. They also help guide the reader to the parts of specific interest.

While you may find some occasional variations, research articles are typically organized into six sections:

1. Abstract.

Read this first. It is often the only section from an article that you need to read to determine if the article is relevant to your child.

The abstract provides a brief overview or synopsis of the article. As a general rule, it contains a sentence or two from each of the five sections of the article that follow and usually includes the following key points:

  • The purpose of the study or why the authors think it was important to conduct the study
  • Information about the participants in the study—their ages, ethnic background, etc.
  • The procedure used in the study
  • The major results or findings of the study
  • A statement as to why the findings are important


2. Background or Introduction.

Knowledge is a cumulative process.

Science takes that a step further by making it a deliberate and necessarily repetitive process as well. A research study is not done in isolation; it is connected or related to other research. Thus, research articles begin by summarizing previous research on the topic of interest in order to provide a framework or context for the present study. In addition to summarizing previous research, this section should also state how the study adds to what has already been done.

Researchers design a study to answer a research question and/or test a hypothesis. Often, authors will state their research question(s) in the introduction and make a hypothesis about what they expect the study to find.


3. Methods or Methodology.

This part of the report provides a blueprint of how the study was designed and conducted and is usually divided into four subsections:

— Research Design. Specifies what type of study was used in the research and where the research was conducted.

— Subjects. Reports how many subjects were in the study, the characteristics of the subjects, the inclusion and exclusion criteria for subject selection, and how the participants assigned to groups.

Good research studies randomly assign participants to groups. Random assignment [link] is a lot like flipping a coin—each participant has an equally likely chance of being in any one group. Random assignment helps counter bias being introduced into a study.

Note: Studies that conduct research with people with disorders such as autism will generally have fewer subjects than studies that use participants from the general population. Overall, there are simply fewer people with autism.

— Procedure. The procedure section explains how the study was conducted. It describes:

Each step the researchers took to set up and complete the study including the method of collecting data
What kinds of data were collected and specifics about the data such as measures of knowledge or behavior

— Measures and Instruments. For a study to produce meaningful results, the measures must be standardized, clear, and consistently applied. The same applies to any instruments used in that process.

Specific points to look at are:

Do the instruments measure what they are supposed to measure? See the term validity.

Have other researchers used the instruments? Instruments that have been used by other researchers have more credibility. If a new measure is being used or introduced, the authors should provide a detailed description of the measure and explain why it was chosen for use in the current study.

If a standardized instrument is not used, are the data collected sufficient to answer the research question? In single-case research investigating interventions based on the principles of applied behavior analysis some topography of behavior change is measured. In this case, it is important that the behavior measured be clearly defined, reliably recorded by two or more recorders (inter-rater reliability) [add to Glossary and link] and directly related to the stated research question.


4. Results.

What are the findings of the study? The results section explains the statistical analyses of the data used in the study and presents the analytical findings in three formats: (1) narrative (written in text), (2) graphic (depicted in graphs), and (3) tabular (presented in tables).

This is not light reading! Research studies use sophisticated statistical methods. The average person (and even some researchers!) will be unable to evaluate the statistical methods used in conducting research. Therefore, a reasonable strategy for evaluating the findings of the study may be for you to get a general idea by looking at the tables and figures provided and seeing to what extent they reflect the outcomes described in the Discussion.


5. Discussion.

If the abstract suggests the study does apply in some way to your child, read the Discussion section next. It explains the findings of the study in the most understandable terms. It summarizes the findings, offers the researchers’ interpretation of the findings, and presents their conclusions.

In addition, the Discussion section should respond to the following questions:

What were the limitations of the study?

Are the findings applicable to different participants and other settings?

In concluding, researchers often describe the implications of the study in terms of future research.


6. References.

If the Abstract and Discussion indicate that the study and research topic do pertain to your loved one with autism, the References section may be more useful to you than reading the details in the other sections of the study because it represents a focused list of primary source information for you. More importantly, it will give you all the identifying information you need to locate the references listed through an online database or in a library.

Authors conduct a literature review of relevant studies before conducting a study and, as mentioned earlier, cite all applicable references in the Background/Introduction section. In the References section, the authors provide the full references.


7. Beware of a Conflict of Interest.

Be aware that researchers may sometimes be influenced by a “conflict of interest.” It is always wise to consider the source of funding behind the research. In most instances, authors acknowledge their source of funding by referencing the funding agency and grant number, if applicable, on the first page of the report or right before the Reference section.

In general, be skeptical when evaluating the research. Always bear in mind that you are your child’s most important advocate, and there are many knowledgeable parents and professionals in the autism community with whom you can discuss questions or concerns about the research. In the final analysis, it is up to you to decide if a particular study makes sense, or has what researchers refer to as face validity, for your son, daughter, or other family member. A parent is the leading expert when it comes to their own child and if something doesn’t “ring true” to you, trust your own instincts, gather more information and make the best, fully informed decision you can.