Treatment training manual

8.10 How studies present and publish their results

One of the responsibilites of research is to publicise the results afterwards, even if nothing new was found.

This can include presenting the study at a medical conference and then publishing the results in a medical journal.

These presentations and papers follow a similar format using five main sections:

  1. Background or introduction.
    This is the context for the study. It includes what is already known about the subject and why the current study was run.
  2. Methods.
    This describes the study design: what exactly was done including technical details about different tests and procedures including for the statistical analysis..
  3. Results.
    This section describes the results in detail, including information about the participants at the start and end of the study.
  4. Discussion.
    This section is more informal. It includes discussions any strengths and weaknesses in the study and cautions for interpreting the results. For example, this is will often emphasise that the result in one group of people might not be repeated in people who are very different. It can comment on what could have been done better and if there is still a need for further research.
  5. Conclusion.
    This is usually a much shorter section. The conclusion should only summarise the results that came directly from the study. This is not a place to include discussion or comments that were not clearly proved in the study.
    Sometimes researchers jump to conclusions that are not supported by the evidence from the study. This is actually very common.

An abstract is a summary of a study, usually limited to around 500 words. The abstract should include enough information for you to decide if you want to read more. There is not usually enough information in the abstract though to be able to discuss the quality and significance of the findings.

A poster is a presentation at a medical conference that includes more details than the abstract. Physical posters are usually about 3 feet high and 6 feet wide, so can include a lot more information. Virtual conferences provide posters as PDF files.

Peer-reviewed publication
A peer-reviewed publication is a detailed report about a study, reviewed by other researchers. The review process is to check that the study was conducted properly and that the results stand up to scrutiny.

Comments from reviewers can result in the paper being changed and hopefully improved. This process is usually confidential and reviewers are anonymous. Some publications are moving to open reviews which are also published as part of transparency.

Unless results are so significant that they justify immediate publication, peer-reviewed publication takes time. This makes initial presentations of study results at medical conference so important. Many studies presented at conferences might take several years to be published in full and some are never followed through to publication.

Study results vs real life
Results seen in a study are often different to the results you would expect to see routinely in a clinic after a drug has been approved.

Results are often better in a study, because participants might be more organised and committed to treatment, and because they receive more care and time at the hospital.

Conflicts of interest
When looking at a study it is important to see who produced the research, where they work and whether they have a conflict of interest that is declared.

Last updated: 1 January 2023.