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How to Read a Paper
  1. G Misiewicz

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I suppose people still read scientific papers, or so editors of scientific journals and their publishers would like to believe, and this is the assumption implicit in the title of this excellent book. On the other hand, the abundance of reviews, summaries, and refresher courses sometimes makes me wonder who actually reads them. Apart from researchers active in their particular corner of the field and referees engaged in peer review, most people, I fancy, only read the abstract.

When a while ago I was appointed to the editorship of Gut, I had my introductory meeting with Stephen Lock, the then editor of the BMJ and editor in chief of all of the BMA journals. George, he said, there is nothing so ephemeral as a scientific paper. The feeling of disbelief, surprise, and shock I felt then is still clear in my memory but of course he was right. How many of us consult even the really great past papers in gastroenterology—for example, Sir James Black et al's “Definition and antagonism of histamine H2 histamine receptors” (Nature 1972;236:385). One generally gets the feeling that most of us find it very difficult to cope with the current volume of scientific research that thuds on one's desk every month, or appears on our screens.

The drive to publish is well documented and generated by genuine discovery, by career and funding pressures, or by marketing needs. Publication of research in hepatology and gastroenterology has been balkanised between some 80 journals. However, more does not necessarily mean better and this is where Trisha Greenhalgh's book comes in. It really contains what it says on the cover, namely the basis of evidence based medicine. This is the second edition, the first having appeared in 1997. The text has been brought up to date and deals with current shibboleths, such as guidelines, for example. The chapter on papers that report drug trials is very valuable and gives sound and irreverent advice on how to deal with drug reps and drug advertising, especially important at present when more and more research seems to be controlled by the pharmaceutical giants. The book has been highly successful, and has been translated into six languages. Dr Greenhalgh writes very well and what might have been a rather dry text is enlivened and made enjoyable by her informal and iconoclastic style, and by practical examples.

Every aspect of clinical scientific presentation is covered and there are numerous and very helpful checklists and appendices. If, like me, you are a self taught Medline hacker, the book is worth buying just for the chapter on searching the literature. A self confessed innumerate person, Dr Greenhalgh has written one of the clearest and non-frightening chapters on medical statistics I have come across. Actually, I think that the author has been too modest in her title because her book contains not only comprehensive advice on how to read a paper but readers will acquire sound and essential guidance on how to plan research and how to write it up. Those embarking on a medical career will find it invaluable but so will seasoned practitioners in any specialty.

It is a cliché of reviewing to say that “everyone should have a copy of this book” but it happens to be true in this instance. At £16.95 it is eminently affordable and a sound investment. Even editors should own it, and my copy will sit on my editorial desk from now on.