# How to Use the Research Design Algorithm

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1 How to Use the Research Design Algorithm Below is a diamond by diamond guide for using the Research Design Algorithm developed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Included are Tips on what to look for and some Watch Out! instructions that may help you avoid common mistakes. Decision Diamond Experimental Trial Algorithm Instructions There are two key points here: (1) that there was an intervention (which can be called a treatment or other labels), and (2) the researcher managed or designed the intervention. Watch Out! Not all studies of the outcomes of an intervention are experimental trials. Sometimes a researcher will examine the outcomes of one or more treatments (for example, different types of bariatric surgery) that occur in usual practice without having any influence on what the treatment is or who the patients are that get it. Studies of this type are not experimental trials. A study can be an experimental trial only if the researcher determines who gets what intervention (or, the order of the treatment) and the specifics of the intervention (and the alternatives). Tips: Look for evidence in the text that the researcher designed the intervention protocol and specified which subjects were eligible for intervention. Yes: There was at least one alternative to the intervention. This could be a group that received no treatment (referred to as the control ) or the comparison could a different type of treatment. No: If there was no comparison or control group studied, but there was a researcher managed intervention, the study design is a Non-Controlled Trial. Yes: The author mentions that randomization is used. Eligible individuals can be randomized to different intervention groups, or less commonly used, existing clusters of individuals can be randomized to different interventions. Randomization can also be used to determine the order in which the same individuals receive two different interventions. No: Go to next question. Yes. If individuals are given two (or more) different treatments in the same (or a non random) sequence, then the subjects are their own controls and study design is a Non Randomized Crossover Trial. No: If two or more groups are compared (and subjects are in groups by some method that did not involve randomization), then the study design is a Non Randomized Controlled Trial. Watch Out! Authors will sometimes have no comparison treatment or control group, but will describe subjects as their own controls when they do

2 baseline (before) and after treatment measurements. Just because the same group of subjects is measured at two different time points does not mean that they serve as their own controls. Subjects serve as their own controls when the effects of one intervention can be compared to effects of a comparison intervention in a study where both interventions are given to all subjects. Yes: If individual subjects (people) are randomly assigned to different groups, the study design in a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) the classic experimental study design. Descriptive Study Algorithm Watch Out! Just because randomization occurs does not mean that individual people were randomly assigned to groups. Studies can be randomized by sites (e.g., schools, cities), or treatment order (diet A first or diet B first). No: Go to the next question Yes: Rather than randomizing at the individual level, sites with many individuals (e.g., schools, offices, cities) are randomly allocated to intervention alternatives. For instance, imagine a study to test the effectiveness of a school-based physical activity program, ten schools agreed to be in the study. The schools are then randomly assigned to either implement the physical activity program or to an alternative (which could be nothing or a comparison program). This would be a Cluster Randomized Trial. No: If neither individuals nor sites were randomly assigned to treatments or interventions, then the only thing left is that the order of treatments was randomly assigned to the same individuals. The study design would be a Randomized Crossover Trial. The word phenomena means any event, circumstance, or experience that is apparent to the senses and that can be scientifically described and appraised. Natural context means that the researcher doesn t change anything. She/he observes what is. Tips: Questions II and III are closely related. In both, the researcher is observing the world (e.g., distribution of disease, the way that different therapies are carried out, how patient characteristics relate to each other) without intervening. Descriptive Studies provide an in-depth look at processes, characteristics and patterns. Yes: If the study is concerned about measuring and quantifying various factors and looking at the relationship among them it is likely an Observational or Epidemiological Study. Go to Question III. Tips: Sometimes researchers will simply provide information about the incidence or prevalence of diseases or characteristics in a population (e.g., the number of new breast cancer cases in a year, or the average intake of vitamin D among teenagers). These are descriptive studies. Ethnographic studies that apply qualitative methods are also descriptive studies. Watch Out! Just because an author describes prevalence rates (e.g., overweight or obesity) for two groups (men versus women) doesn t mean that they test for statistical difference! Look carefully at the study purpose and statistical methods and results. If the authors test a hypothesis (whether two groups were statistically different on a certain characteristic, or whether one characteristic is statistically related to or predicts another characteristic), then the

3 answer is yes and you should move on to Question III. No: Go to the next question. Observational or Epidemiological Study Algorithm Yes: When a researcher provides a detailed description of only one or a handful of clinical cases the study design is a Case Study or a Case Series. No: When the point of the study is to describe a situation, either quantitative or qualitative, but the purpose is not to determine what causes what, or to test hypotheses, the study falls into the Other Descriptive Study category. In this group of study designs the researcher does not manipulate group assignment or provide an intervention, but he/she does have hypotheses about the relationship among variables and may be looking for an association between exposures and outcomes. Tips: Expect to see more details about statistical methods including management of intervening factors and potential confounders, and tests of association or statistical difference. Yes: If data are collected at more than one time point, go down to the next question. No: The researchers went to the subjects only once to get data. For instance, if the researcher collected information on the exposure (diet intake) and the outcome (weight) at the same time, then this is a Cross-Sectional Study. Watch Out! Many descriptive studies (under Question II) collect data at only one point in time. What sets a Cross-Sectional study off from an Other Descriptive Study is that the author tests a hypothesis or carries out a statistical test for association or predictive relationships. Yes: If there are repeated measures on the same subjects, then go down to the next question. No: If the researcher goes to the population to collect data more than one point in time (say, in different years), but the data are collected on different subjects each time, then the study design is a Trend Study. For example, studies that statistically compare variables from different cycles of NHANES are often Trend Studies. Tips: If you are unsure, determine whether the same subjects or different subjects are measured at each time point. Yes: If the emphasis on measuring status before and after a naturally occurring procedure, experience or event, go down to the next question. For example, a procedure could be a particular type of surgery or dietary intervention (where the researcher merely observes what surgeons or dietitians do rather than try to influence their practices). An experience or event is generally a distinct event in time and space (e.g., becoming a college freshman; or the passage of new regulations on food served in school cafeterias). No: Go to the next question.

4 Yes: If cases (individuals with the outcome) are matched to similar individuals who do not have the outcome (controls) the study design is Case-Control Study. No: Go to next question. Tips: If comparison groups are defined in terms of an outcome already present (e.g., obese individuals versus non-obese individuals, or persons who developed complications following a surgical procedure versus persons who did not develop complications following the procedure), and then data about pre-existing exposure is examined (e.g., hours of television viewing, or pre-surgery nutrition consult), then the study design is a Case-Control Study. Watch Out! Case-control studies can be confused with to Cohort Studies. They key difference between Case-Control and Cohort Studies depends on whether the comparison groups used in the analysis are based on the outcome or the exposure. See figures below. Yes: If subjects are enrolled in the study and followed forward through time with many data collection points (that is, the researchers define the variables to answer a set of research questions and then follow the same subjects and collect data over a long period of time), then the design is a Prospective Cohort study. No: If data for the study are abstracted from existing longitudinal data sets or archival data sources (with many data collection points on the same individuals over time) then it is a Retrospective Cohort design. Tips: A data set that is prospective for one research question may be retrospective for another research question. The difference is how the cohort was created in the beginning. Was it originally set up to answer questions like those in the current study; or is the researcher using an existing data set because it includes variables that allow answering new research questions? Watch Out! Do not confuse Before-After or Trial designs with follow-up measures as a Cohort design. While there is no hard and fast cut-off for how long is a long period, in Before-After or Trial designs follow-up measures are taken within months or years (usually less than five years) of the event of interest (the intervention or therapy). Cohort designs generally follow a large number of

5 individuals over the course of many years. Diagnostic, Validity or Reliability Study Yes: If data are collected at several points prior to the procedure, event or experience and again after, the study design is a Time Series Study. An example might be a study of the impact of calorie posting in fast food restaurants on purchases. No: A Before-After Study uses data at baseline or before a program or treatment and after it is completed. One or two follow up measures (e.g. at three months and six months) might be included. Watch Out! A Before-After Study is an observational study where the researcher does not design the intervention. Before-After Studies can be confused with Non-Controlled Trials where the researcher manages the intervention. Tips: Time Series studies, with multiple measurements prior to the event or treatment, are relatively rare in nutrition research. Watch Out! Just because a study has multiple follow-up measurements does not make it a Time Series. It must also have more than one measurement before the procedure, event or experience being studied to be a Time Series. I got to the end, but didn t find an appropriate study design. Yes: Does the study compare how well two diagnostic, assessment, or screening tools classify individuals in terms of whether or not they have a disease or condition? Does the study assess the validity or reliability of a tool or measurement method (often comparing the results of the tool with a gold standard )? These are common examples of a Diagnostic, Validity or Reliability Study. Tips: Sometimes study designs are very complex and incorporate characteristics of multiple types of designs. Other times, authors will call their study one thing, when in reality it is another. If you get to the end and could not decide, ask your Lead Analyst or Project Leader for help.

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