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Understanding Research Terminology

With research studies so easy to find on the Internet, fitness professionals are regularly bombarded by clients asking for interpretations.

Unfortunately, reading and interpreting scientific articles can get frustrating when terminology is unfamiliar and writing styles are wordy or awkward. Scientific journals try to communicate research findings as clearly as possible, but journals often use a highly stylized voice that makes it difficult for the applied professional to grasp the meaning of published studies.

Fitness professionals with a good grasp of common research methods and terminology (see Table 1) have a better chance of helping clients to make sense of scientific writing. The explanations that follow should make it easier for you to translate researchers’ conclusions into plain English:

What Does “Significant” Mean?

The term “significant”—or more correctly “statistical significance”—in a research study refers to the likelihood that certain test scores will occur. This in turn helps researchers understand whether their results are credible.

In exercise science research, statistical significance is typically stated at one of two probability (


) levels:


≤ 0.05 or


≤ 0.01. Think of


≤ 0.05 as saying 95 times out of a 100 you will get this result (and 5 times out of a 100 you can get a chance result).

What’s the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Research?

Primary research starts with a research question (i.e., an unsolved problem the researcher is trying to unravel). This type of investigation follows a detailed process—the scientific method—that enables the researcher to develop a hypothesis and create an experiment to test it (see Figure 1). (Sometimes more than one question is posed.)

Before a primary research study is published in a journal, it goes through a strict peer review, in which two or more specialists in the field critically examine the article and recommend whether it should be accepted for publication. Many primary research journals now include a practical-applications section that synthesizes the useful insights gleaned from the study. This section usually appears at the end of the article.

By contrast, a secondary research study—such as a literature review or meta-analysis—collates, summarizes and analyzes existing research. Secondary research also goes through peer review before scientific journals will publish it.

Understanding Titles and Abstracts

Internet searches usually yield two categories of titles for research studies: the authoritative titles published in journals, and the “clickbait” headlines on articles summarizing the research. Researchers often spend an inordinate amount of time choosing their article’s title, which often provides a great glimpse into what the study is all about. Clickbait titles are another animal altogether: Designed mainly to generate online advertising revenue, they rarely have much to do with quality research. Be on guard for these sensational headlines as you conduct Internet research, and make sure your clients can distinguish between clickbait headlines and authoritative titles.

After the title, most research journal articles begin with an


—a brief summary of the purpose, methods, results and main conclusions of the study. Ideally, and most of the time, the abstract is a standalone synthesis of the entire paper and is easily accessed through Internet searches. However, as fitness pros have no doubt realized, reading complete research articles online sometimes requires paying a fee. A system like this that prevents Internet users from accessing full article content without a paid subscription to the webpage host (or without direct payment for access to the article) is called a “paywall.” Students and faculty at universities have library resources that bypass paywall systems.

To read more about key terminology and study methods to help you interpret research findings for your clients, please see “Understanding and Translating Research” in the online IDEA Library or in the February 2016 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

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