Abstracts are nice, but…
If you don’t have a way to access full research articles, you need to get one. Check with your local libraries and state college system to find out what programs they offer for the local community.
Why is this so important when you can read the abstract free on Pub Med? Because an abstract is only a teaser of what is included in the study – think of it as the advertising content created to help researchers find the articles that are most likely to pertain to their topic. The abstract will list some results and conclusions, but due to space limitations they won’t really be explained.
The full article will also have a good amount of information that is necessary for understanding the generalizability of a study. It will have complete information about who the subjects were and how they were recruited for the study. It will give the limitations and delimitations – which means the things that limited what the researchers could study and the limits the researchers set for themselves. Think of the difference in recording length of labor in a group of women if recruitment is done at hospital admission, or if recruitment is done at the first birth center visit. How might these populations differ?
The full article explains the methods used, which is key to understanding how to interpret the results. Think of the possible differences in findings between a study that asks women to rate the pain they feel in labor at two hour intervals during the process and a study that asks women to rate the pain the felt in labor when they gave birth 1- 5 years earlier. Which method will you assume has better quality data?
Abstracts generally have a one sentence conclusion, but the full article will give you a better discussion of the way the current paper adds to past research and the next steps research should take. Think of a paper that finds an association between obesity and cesarean surgery – if you only read the abstract you might believe the researchers think obese women are more likely to need a cesarean. But if you read the discussion you could quickly find what the researchers were able to control for, and what additional factors (perhaps higher rates of failed elective inductions) are potentially causing the association.
The full paper can also lead you to additional research on the topic to help you form a good base of knowledge – because one of the most useful parts of a paper for a person who wants to fully understand an subject is the references. Any paper will only list a small proportion of the research reviewed by the authors before completing their study, but the ones listed are most likely the most relevant. The references are not going to be listed in the abstract.
Bottom Line: Find a way to get the full paper. Don’t make assumptions based on the abstract.