Medical Research – What Is It and Where Can I Find It!

Dr. Akash Lobo, Intern, DY Patil School of Medicine,
Navi Mumbai.

The increased life span of humans as well as many of the quality-of-life improvements in our day-to-day lives can be attributed to medical research. Without the careful and meticulous work of researchers, we would not currently have access to antibiotics, vitamins, cancer treatments, and more recently, stem cell therapies and fMRIs. Today we can cure previously fatal diseases. Just a century ago, that would have been considered impossible. To someone from the 1920s, a modern physician would be hard to distinguish from a magician.

A medical journal is a publication containing research-based articles written by researchers and other experts. Much like magazines, they are published on a regular basis (monthly, quarterly, etc.) and can be subscribed to either by an individual or by an institute, usually for a subscription fee.

Medical research encompasses ‘Basic Science’ research which mainly involves preclinical subjects, as well as ‘Clinical’ research which includes clinical trials. When a study uses previously discovered knowledge and techniques to solve problems in practice it is known as ‘Applied’ research.

Medical research in India:

The apex body of medical research in India is the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). It is funded by the government and its job is to formulate, coordinate, fund, and promote medical research. It is similar in scope and has similar objectives to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States. While the budget of the NIH for 2021-22 was $43 billion, the ICMR received just $310 million for the same period, which is less than one percent of the funding of its American counterpart. This disparity directly translates into the comparative research output of the two countries. According to a 2016 study, which analyzed the publications by 579 Indian medical institutes between 2005 and 2014, there were an average of 14.5 publications per institute per year. However, 57% of the institutes studied did not publish a single paper during this ten-year period. Surprisingly, the institutes with the largest patient load and therefore the busiest schedules published the greater share of the country’s research papers.

Apart from the general lack of required infrastructure, most medical colleges in India hand out promotions based on the amount of time served by the faculty, and not their research output, which skews the incentives against conducting research. We have a large population from which a wealth of knowledge can be extracted, and we must try to take advantage of this.

Peer review:

An important aspect of a medical journal is peer review. Peer review is a process in which a researcher’s methods and findings are reviewed by experts in the same field. The process of peer review is as follows. On receiving an aspirant’s article, the editor of the journal forwards it to a group of reviewers. They decide if the article is relevant and well-formatted enough to be considered for publication in that specific journal. Once this ‘desk evaluation’ is complete, the editor sends the article to another group, who are experts in the relevant field for the ‘external review’. At this point, the article can be rejected outright or can be returned to the author for revisions before getting accepted. Rarely, the article may be accepted without the need for further revisions. While all articles are not peer-reviewed, the process of peer review is thought to increase the quality of publications in a journal and provide legitimacy to the article’s conclusions. 

How to access medical research:

As a medical student or practitioner, it is useful to know how to search for and access medical journals, which is why we have compiled an exhaustive list of available resources:

  1. Pubmed (PubMed) is a free database of medical research papers provided by the aforementioned NIH. In most cases, it only provides the abstract of the article. Pubmed Central (PMC) is a subsidiary of Pubmed in which the full text of all its articles is available. Europe PMC (Europe PMC) is another such site that provides free articles as well as free-to-read summaries of otherwise paid articles.
  2. ERMED (ERMED Consortium) is an Indian government initiative that provides free access to 243 different medical journals to any person belonging to one of its member institutes, of which there are 70 in the country. You can check if your institute is a member at ERMED Members.
  3. JSTOR (JSTOR) is a database of articles that can be subscribed to by an individual or an institute by paying a subscription fee. It currently also has a free tier, which provides access to 100 articles per month. Other such databases which are convenient to use if your institute has access to them include Ovid (Ovid), EBSCO (ebsco), and Wiley (Wiley). Similarly, there are publisher-specific databases like Scopus (Scopus), Science direct (ScienceDirect), and Springer Link (SpringerLink).
  4. PLOS (PLOS), DOAJ (DOAJ), Geneva Foundation (GFMER), and Cochrane Library (Cochrane Library) are free websites that let you search for open access medical articles.
  5. BioRxiv (bioRxiv) and medRxiv (medRxiv) are repositories of preprint articles. A preprint is an article that has not yet been formally published and peer-reviewed, but the author deems it to be useful to share.
  6. Individual journal websites. Most journals have websites through which you can subscribe to the print or online versions of the journal. These tend to be expensive and unaffordable to the regular user. Many journals, however, make their older content free. The website Free Medical Journals (Free Medical Journals) can be used to check which journals provide this feature and the relevant time period.
  7. Institution libraries. If you are affiliated with a medical college or similar institution, you can check the library for physical copies of journals. Don’t forget to ask the librarian for login details of any journals or databases to which the institution has subscribed. 
  8. Google Scholar (Google Scholar). While searching for a specific research topic or article, a simple google search will work, nevertheless, google scholar is a specialised tool that helps eliminate irrelevant search results.

Medical research is powerful and its impact is widespread. Although a slow process, its benefits can be enjoyed for decades. It also serves as a base for further research, creating an exponential growth of know-how and capabilities. As doctors, we must do our part to contribute to this tree of knowledge and utilise the information already available to us. 

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