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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Doing Research

I’ve been hearing a new expression. A number of my patients, in particular those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, tell me: “I’ll do my own research.” What exactly does this mean?

Clearly, they are not claiming to be scientists, about to undertake basic original laboratory research. I believe that they are saying they intend to go online and investigate whether the vaccine is both safe and effective.

How would one approach this? Years ago, as a college and medical student, I spent an enormous number of hours in various libraries, pulling respected primary sources, culling the information, and writing papers.

These days, we have the Internet. What a difference. So much information is available in so many different forums, including government funded websites, websites connected to educational institutions, personal blog or opinion sites, political websites with a highly specific bent, and websites marketing particular products. One of the most important challenges is to identify which are reliable and factual.

Here is an effective strategy:

Step 1: Clearly identify your topic. If you are clear in your subject matter, you will likely find a number of websites. Your search engine (Google, Yahoo, etc.) will use your keywords to bring up documents and webpages. Vary your keywords if you are not getting many “hits.”

Step 2: Decide whether there is sufficient information available. Often I will search for information on a topic, only to find very little. Many subjects have not yet been exhaustively and conclusively researched.

Step 3: Evaluate your sources. This is the tricky part. Are your websites providing credible, truthful, and reliable information? The problem is that you can get an enormous number of “hits,” but they may not be accurate, authoritative, or even up-to-date. Unlike medical journals, there is no review standard for Internet content. ANYONE can put literally ANYTHING out there. Therefore, your task is to evaluate information and websites extremely carefully.

To be fair, most issues are not black and white. That is the challenge in researching and writing on any subject. I have biases of my own; we all do. However, for scientific data, I aspire to be an objective, balanced, and trusted source for my articles, patients, family, and friends.

What do I suggest for those who wish to “do their own research” regarding the vaccine? Let’s admit that most of us do not have the background and training to interpret the raw data. But I urge you: Do not seek scientific information from social media or from a blog. Use peer-reviewed scientific journals, medical school or respected university websites, and/or a government website such as the CDC. The Internet has changed the way we all gather information, and we must be exceedingly cautious regarding just whom we choose to listen to.

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