Reliable research: how reliable actually is it?

Sadie Romero, Staff Writer

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Northwestern’s most recent research suggests that red and non-red meat consumption, even as minimal as twice a week, is harmful to human health. Yet, biology and research experts at the College of DuPage say using such a study to determine human eating habits begins by evaluating whether or not the research is valid, especially when it contradicts other recent studies.

Just last November, the scientific journal Annals of Internal Medicine compiled guidelines for meat-consumers and made a series of claims, assuring that there is no harm to the human body directly linked to meat consumption. The journal’s guidelines were shot down as Northwestern announced “a 3 to 7% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death for people who ate red meat and processed meat two servings a week,” in the abstract of their most recent research regarding meat consumption.

Northwestern contradicts the journal, whose claims were established through a systematic review process. The journal’s process included 14-panel members developing, compiling, and voting on final health recommendations for meat-eaters. The panel consisted of health experts in areas such as epidemiology, basic and transitional research, family medicine, health research methodology, dietetics, general internal medicine, and 3 external members with no previous health care experience. Their final suggestion, as shown in their abstract, is for adults to “continue current unprocessed red meat consumption. Similarly, the panel suggests adults continue current processed meat consumption.” This indicates that there must be no precautionary measure taken, whatsoever, when consuming both red meat and non-red meat. 

Guidelines that the journal failed to include, however, were specifics of the study that may hinder its truth and reliability.

With advancements in various platforms, there is always a new study being released and headlined. So how can listeners, readers, consumers, and students, filter through all these claims coming out? How can someone decipher what is true from what is not? It is especially difficult to know which research to follow when one finding refutes the next. 

College of Dupage biology professor and researcher, John Boyce, says, “the ideal way to conduct research is to have zero conflicts of interest, and that would be doing something without any expectations. Of course, you have some expectations because you draw up a hypothesis. So, it is hard to say that in every scenario you go into it without having some thought or some expectation,” Boyce continues, “sometimes scientists will hinder results and just try to get notoriety. A lot of it has to do with grant funding…sometimes they will exaggerate data and make it up in some cases, and try to get that money.”

Oftentimes, if a study is industry-funded, there is a pre-established bias and specific results that are discreetly being sought out. This can detrimentally affect the way the study is conducted.

When evaluating research and weighing out two contradictory studies, consumers must be mindful of detecting a few essential factors. Simply, ask the following questions:  

Who is the study testing? Do the participants each meet all the same criteria, including any external factors?

Research professional and science librarian on campus, Laura Burt-Nicholas, advises students to consider, “If it is a broadly based study, are women included as well as men? Are lots of different age ranges included too? So, not just 18-24-year-olds, but the whole span of adult life. As well as our whole span of childhood life, if it is appropriate for the study. Also thinking about issues of race and ethnicity as well. That can make a big difference, potentially– especially in terms of health results.”

For how long was the study conducted? Over what period did they compile the data?

How many times was the study replicated by the researchers, themselves, and other external groups/individuals? 

Boyce also confirmed that the replication process is not a very common occurrence, “I have never seen anyone just go out of their way to replicate something verbatim,” he said, “unless it is a process that is for medical purposes. In the Northwestern research, that is where it gets really difficult. Because, how can you replicate an experiment when all of your study groups are going to be different? When we do experiments in the laboratory, we can control everything– we can’t do that with humans. When we look at any of these studies, that is why it is constantly back and forth.”