A Guide: How To Read Published Psychedelic Science Research

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How to Read Published Psychedelic Science Research

by Matt Wall

About the Author: Matthew Wall ​​is a Psychologist, neuroscientist, & fMRI specialist at Invicro and Imperial College London. He works closely with Robin Carhart-Harris, supporting their research into the effects of Psilocybin, Cannabis, and other novel compounds on the brain through brain imaging. Matthew is a friend of Numinus but is not affiliated directly with our team. This guest blog is his generous contribution to the Psychedelic Ecosystem so everyone, regardless of background, can understand the research emerging in the field of Psychedelic Sciences. A sincere thank you for your time and contributions to the Psychedelic community! 

Introduction: Diving into a New Landscape in Science

The current wave of research on psychedelics is notably different from the previous wave in the 1950s/60s in lots of ways, but one of the most important ones is that we now have research methods and technology that just weren’t available back then. A lot of modern psychedelic research has taken advantage of this and focused on understanding the details of how psychedelics act on the brain and how these brain effects translate to the acute, subjective, and longer-term clinical effects of these drugs. There’s a huge amount of public interest in these results, but unfortunately, the research methods used are often highly technical and use a large amount of scientific jargon. This means readers without a strong background in neuroscience, biology, statistics, psychology, or related disciplines can struggle to understand the primary research literature.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to extract what you need from a paper, even if it’s not in your field of expertise. Most scientific papers follow a pretty standard format, so it’s fairly easy to focus on the important bits without getting bogged down in all the technical stuff.

Begin Here: The Abstract of the Paper

First, read the abstract. This is the summary at the beginning that normally contains a brief outline of the methods, results, and conclusions. If this gives you all the information you need, then great – you’re done! However, if you want to start digging a little deeper or be able to evaluate the results critically, you’ll need to read at least a few more sections. Rather than reading straight through the paper, it’s better to flip back and forth and read the following sections:

  • The introduction sets out the background to the research question, and often references previous studies that have looked at similar or related questions. The final paragraph of the introduction is worth taking a close look at, as it usually sets out the precise aims of the study and the hypotheses.
  • The first paragraph of the discussion section is usually a summary of the key results, often in simpler language than in the results section, so that’s an important part to read carefully as well.
  • Often towards the end of the discussion there will be a paragraph or two which outlines the strengths and limitations of the study. This can give really important information about how to critically evaluate the study’s conclusions.
  • The final paragraph of the discussion is usually a fairly plain-language summary of the key conclusions.
  • The figures in neuroscience papers are often the most important part of the results section. These might be images of brains with colored blobs that indicate areas of significant increased or decreased activation, or if it’s a pre-clinical (i.e., work on animals) paper, they might be images of cells. There are also usually a number of charts, graphs, tables, or other kinds of diagrams. The figure/table captions are usually helpful in understanding them but can sometimes be quite technical.

fig 1: Whole brain voxelwise changes. Significant clusters showed increased (hot colors) or decreased (cool colors) responsivity after therapy (cluster corrected, z > 2.3, p < .05). **

If you really want to dig deep into a particular paper, then you’ll need to tackle the methods section. This sets out exactly what the researchers did in a fair amount of detail. In neuroscience papers, this usually contains a large amount of technical jargon, which can be really hard to get through if you’re not familiar with the research field. You may need to look up particular words and phrases as you go or even do some background reading of other papers to understand exactly what the researchers did. If you’re lucky, there’s sometimes a figure or diagram in the methods section that summarizes the methods used.

Other Sections to Look Out for While Reviewing the Details: 
  • In clinical trial papers, there is usually a CONSORT (Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials) diagram. CONSORT is actually a whole set of detailed guidelines for how to report randomized clinical trials, but what’s normally referred to as a ‘CONSORT diagram’ is a flow-chart-like figure with arrows and boxes, which details the recruitment of subjects, how they were allocated to particular treatments or trial conditions, how many dropped out, how many were excluded from the analysis, and the reasons why.
  • Often hidden away at the end of the paper, there is usually some kind of statement about how the study was funded and the potential conflicts of interest of the authors. This is important because studies funded by commercial interests report favorable results more often than those funded by independent sources, which may be evidence of bias. In addition, the individual authors may disclose that they act as consultants for or are employed by commercial interests.
  • Pre-registration. Most clinical trials will be pre-registered on https://clinicaltrials.gov/. This means the author will post a fairly detailed summary of the trial protocol, what they expect the main outcomes to be, and other details online. This prevents people from being able to selectively report trial results or change the outcomes halfway through the trial so as to get a more positive result. There’s a general movement to pre-register more kinds of studies, so you may see that even some basic science studies have pre-registered analysis plans and outcomes, often on websites like the Open Science Foundation (https://osf.io/). Suppose the authors pre-registered their outcomes and analysis plans. In that case, you can be more confident that the results are genuine and not the outcome of some process where the researchers tried a bunch of different analyses on their data and picked the one they liked the best.
  • Open code/data. Similar to pre-registration, there’s a general movement towards more ‘open science’ practices, and this means sometimes papers will include links to data repositories, or analysis code that they’ve used in the study. This is also a good sign, as it suggests the authors have nothing to hide, and that anyone can independently verify their methods.
Summary and Next Steps:

Learning to read scientific papers is a skill and something that definitely gets easier with practice, though even experienced researchers can sometimes still struggle when evaluating a paper that’s outside their (often fairly narrow) range of expertise. If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to ask questions; social media sites like Twitter or Reddit are a great place to ask questions, and you can even look up one of the study authors and ask them questions directly. Most researchers will be happy to talk about their work and will be pleased that someone is reading it! If you start to dig into a particular research area, you’ll start to pick up some of the more common terms and jargon, making it easier and faster, too. With many scientific publications now being open-access and not paywalled, there is a great opportunity for anyone to engage with the scientific literature, and non-scientists can still get a lot out of it. Unfortunately, there can be a lot of misinformation about particular topics, and going to the source and looking at the original research is the best way to counter that. Hopefully, this short guide can be an entry point for anyone interested in reading about psychedelic science or any other research topic you may be interested in.

If you are interested in participating in clinical trials in Psychedelics and diagnostic-specific research in the Psychedelic landscape, please visit Numinus' Clinical Trials page for our actively recruiting trials. If you are a researcher seeking to expand your knowledge and include Psychedelic Research in your work, we encourage you to participate in our Info Friday sessions, where you can learn more about our various training programs and certification pathways

Discover more about Matthew and his work on Linkedin, and read his research on Google Scholar.

**Images were taken from "Increased amygdala responses to emotional faces after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression" by Leor Roseman, Lysia Demetriou, Matthew B. Wall, David J. Nutt, and Robin Cart-Hart Harris. 

 


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