How to wade through research jargon

This is an excerpt from Research Methods in Physical Activity-7th Edition by Jerry R. Thomas,Jack K. NelsonS & tephen J. Silverman.

Reading Research

Someone once said (facetiously) that scientific papers are meant not to be read but to be published. Unfortunately, we find considerable truth in this observation. We writers are often guilty of trying to use language to dazzle the reader and perhaps to give the impression that our subject matter is more esoteric than it really is. We tend to write for the benefit of a rather small number of readers - that is, other researchers in our field.

We have the problem of jargon, of course. In any field, whether it is physics, football, or cake baking, jargon confounds the outsider. The use of jargon serves as a kind of shorthand. It provides meaning to the people within the field because everyone uses those words in the same context. Research literature is famous for using a three-dollar word when a nickel word would do. As Day and Gastel (2006, p. 200)asked, what self-respecting writer would use a three-letter word such as now when he or she could use the elegant expression at this point in time? Researchers never do anything, they perform it; they never start, they initiate; and they terminate instead of end. Day and Gastel further remarked that an occasional author slips and uses the word drug, but most salivate like Pavlov’s dogs in anticipation of using chemotherapeutic agent.

The need to bridge the gap between the researcher and the practitioner has been recognized for years. For example, the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance has a feature called "Research Works," which disseminates applied research information to teachers, coaches, and fitness and recreation leaders. The website for the American Kinesiology Association ( regularly has a section on applied research. Yet despite these and other attempts to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners, the gap is still imposing.

It goes without saying that if you are not knowledgeable about the subject matter, you cannot read the research literature. Conversely, if you know the subject matter, you can probably wade through the researcher’s jargon more effectively. For example, if you know baseball and the researcher is recommending that by shortening the radius, the hitter can increase the angular velocity, you can figure out that the researcher means to choke up on the bat.

One of the big stumbling blocks is the statistical analysis part of research reports. Even the most ardent seeker of knowledge can be turned off by such descriptions as this: "The tetrachoric correlations among the test variables were subjected to a centroid factor analysis, and orthogonal rotations of the primary axes were accomplished by Zimmerman’s graphical method until simple structure and positive manifold were closely approximated." Please note that we are not criticizing the authors for such descriptions, because reviewers and editors usually require them. We are just acknowledging that statistical analysis is frightening to someone who is trying to read a research article and does not know a factor analysis from a volleyball. The widespread use of computers and "computerese" probably compounds the mystery associated with statistics. Many people believe anything that comes out of a computer. Others are more old-fashioned and check the computer’s accuracy with their calculators. A classic, yet fictional, case of a computer mistake occurred in a high school in which the computer printed the students’ locker numbers in the column where their IQs were supposed to go. It is classic because no one noticed the error at the time, but at the end of the year the students with the highest locker numbers got the best grades.

How to Read Research

Despite all the hurdles that loom in the practitioner’s path when reading research, we contend that you can read and profit from (usually not materially, but then consider the data on the new Speedo swimsuit and its influence on the 2008 swimming results in Beijing)the research literature even if you are not well grounded in research techniques and statistical analysis. We would like to contend that after you read this book, you will be able to read any journal in any field, but the publisher would not let us say that. We offer the following suggestions on reading the research literature:

  • Become familiar with a few publications that contain pertinent research in your field. You might get some help on choosing the publications from a professor or librarian.
  • Read only studies that are of interest to you. This point may sound too trite to mention, but some people feel obligated to wade through every article.
  • Read as a practitioner would. Do not look for eternal truths. Look for ideas and indications. No study is proof of anything. Only when it has been verified repeatedly does it constitute knowledge.
  • Read the abstract first. This saves time by helping you determine whether you wish to read the whole thing. If you are still interested, then you can read the study to gain a better understanding of the methodology and the interpretations, but do not get bogged down with details.
  • Do not be too concerned about statistical significance. Understanding the concept of significance certainly helps, but a little common sense serves you about as well as knowing the difference between the .02 and the .01 levels, or a one-tailed test versus a two-tailed test. Think in terms of meaningfulness. For example, if two methods of teaching bowling result in an average difference of 0.5 pins, what does it matter whether the difference is significant? On the other hand, if a big difference is present but not significant, further investigation is warranted, especially if the study involved a small number of participants. Knowing the concepts of the types of statistical analysis is certainly helpful, but it is not crucial to being able to read a study. Just skip that part.
  • Be critical but objective. You can usually assume that a national research journal selects studies for publication by the jury method. Two or three qualified people read and judge the relevance of the problem, the validity and reliability of the procedures, the efficacy of the experimental design, and the appropriateness of the statistical analysis. Certainly, some studies are published that should not be. Yet if you are not an expert in research, you do not need to be suspicious about the scientific worth of a study that appears in a recognized journal. If it is too far removed from any practical application to your situation, do not read it.

You will find that the more you read, the more you understand, simply because you become more familiar with the language and the methodology, like the man who was thrilled to learn he had been speaking prose all his life.

Learn more about Research Methods in Physical Activity.

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