In case it turns out to be a bit longer than I think it is here's some music to play in the background. A choice between Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene (~40m) and Subcutaneous Phat from Josh Homme's Desert Sessions 10 (~5min) depending on how fast you read.
1. Accessing / discovering research
Many research papers are behind what's called a 'paywall', that is you have to make a payment of around $40 to access the article you want to read. This cost pays in part for the journal to shepherd the article from its early days as a manuscript through to the neatly formatted end product. You can always buy an article but it's expensive and there are cheaper and free-er ways available.
Increasingly, the trend is for more papers to become free to the end user ('open access') and rather than readers paying to read the articles, the authors (through their research grant money) pay to be published. This is great for patients, though there's still a bit of ironing out of how it's all going to be paid for and you can read more about that in this post on 'Open access for the deeply confused'
Until that happens the simplest ways for getting hold of newly published research articles are likely to be along the following lines:
(i) Google Scholar might have a copy of the paper too: http://scholar.google.co.uk/
(ii) email the author of the paper and ask politely. If you've heard about a piece of research through a news story use the information in it (scientist's(s)' name(s), university, subject keyword, name of journal) as well as adding the search terms 'email address' to find their e-address. You can also just search for their academic page on their university which will usually have their contact details. You can get the basic citation for a paper, and the abstract, for free from PubMed too.
You're looking for the 'corresponding author', or if not obvious, the paper's first author - this information will definitely be on the journal's listing for the article, not sure if it will be on PubMed though.
(iii) find a copy of their paper on an university repository. Many organisations that award grant money to people working on research in universities insist that a copy of any paper published that arises from the money should be made freely available. University repositories often post unformatted copies (before the journal's tweaked them) of papers as PDFs. You may also find that the author has published a copy somewhere on their own personal site, usually as a pdf so you can try adding filetype:pdf to a Google search
(iv) If you're lucky enough to have a local library or even an academic library if there's a university or equivalent near you then it's worth asking the librarian there if they can help you get hold of a copy of the article. It may be cheaper than buying it directly from the publisher's site. Your librarian should also be able to get copies from the British Library and you can search their catalogue to see if they have the journal: explore.bl.uk
2. Understanding the research
Published research articles can be heavy-going as they use a lot of jargon. They also use everyday terms in very precise meanings which doesn't help either. If you're lucky someone might have written a blog post explaining the science behind the article, aiming their post at a non-specialist audience - you can search for the article's name within Google's index of blogs.
PatientsParticipate! is a venture one of whose aims is to encourage medical research charities to work with patients in developing 'lay summary' (plain English summary aimed at non-specialist audiences) for research papers that the charity funds. Many charities do already make great efforts to make the work that they are funding more understandable (they have to, be hard to get funding otherwise!) but this doesn't always stretch to published articles. Get in touch with the relevant charities and see if they can help, but no guarantees as there are an awful lot of papers! The largest umbrella body for medical research charities is the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) and they are also one of the partners behind PatientsParticipate!
*Update* 29 May 2013
The final published versions of the guide on writing lay summaries are now available, for printed copies for events contact email@example.com - see comment below
AcaWiki is an expanding list of non-specialist summaries of research articles, it's pot luck though if your article or area of interest is represented there.
If you want to help write lay summaries you might be interested in PatientsParticipate!'s guide on 'How to write lay summaries' (PDF) (annotated online draft version for comments) and there's also a science wiki from the 21st Floor which aims to "open up scientific research to the public by offering plain-language summaries of important scientific research" to which people can contribute.
3. Putting it in context
Turning complex phrases ('hyperglycaemia') into plain English ('high glucose levels in the blood', and explaining why that's a big deal) is all very well but although it's a good start it's not sufficient. A single piece of research is just part of the bigger picture and people need to know whether or not a particular research finding is relevant to them. Information about the type of research study that's been done and published, and the conclusions that can be appropriately drawn from it is very important. So rather than just the who, why, what, where, how, when you also need the 'what if', 'what's missing?' and 'does this study really show that X causes Y or just that the two are related'.
Something that looks very promising here is research being done into the development of an online patient toolkit to help patients, and people generally, make sense of a piece of research.
"The toolkit — which will initially be in the form of a website — will help people assess the credibility of health evidence by taking them through a set of questions they should ask of a study. The questions will be tailored depending on the type of study.See also
“It’ll ask people how many patients were in the study, whether there’s a control group, whether the people were randomised,” says Lindsay.
There are some services already out there that appraise evidence, such as NHS Choices’ Behind the Headlines, which analyses health research that has made it into newspapers. The difference between the toolkit and these services is that people will be empowered to analyse research themselves.
“Behind the Headlines can’t cover every study,” says Lindsay “and some people don’t trust organisations. We want to give people the tools to appraise evidence themselves.”"
• Winner of Access to Understanding competition is announced as Europe PubMed Central and the British Library celebrate accessible, engaging science writing (11 March 2013)
• The lay summary is dead, long live the lay summary (#A2UComp) (13 March 2013) by Simon Denegri
Thanks to pals known and unknown on Twitter who retweeted my requests for info (@McDawg @pigsonthewing @mostlygeordie @Harrison_Peter @unifex @arclight @inkysloth) and made suggestions, and hopefully will continue to do so :)
This post was actually inspired by @cherrymakes writing a post explaining what Open Access is all about for people who aren't that familiar with it. I've linked to her 'new readers start here' post in mine above but here it is again for good measure: Open access for the deeply confused. It was also co-inspired by Katherine Nightingale's post for the MRC on research being done into a patient toolkit, linked above but it's here again as: Lindsay Hogg: giving power to patients