School of Health

Dealing with fear and criticism when doing research

As members of the Musculoskeletal Health Research group we investigate the epidemiology of injury across a range of sports including climbing, running, rowing, rugby, netball and football.

Published on 28 Apr 2021

In recent years, our interest has turned to women’s football due to increased participation and the expansion of domestic professional leagues and international competitions. As part of this, we decided to determine the burden of injury in professional women’s football by systematically reviewing published research studies on the topic and conducting a statistical meta-analysis to estimate the incidence of injuries during match play and training.

Our findings were written-up and submitted to a high impact factor sports science journal. Unfortunately our manuscript was not accepted for publication following peer evaluation by independent researchers who challenged some of our methodological decisions. You need to be resilient to such set-backs, and criticisms need to be used in a positive way to improve the quality of your research and write-up. In fact, we welcome and actively seek out criticism from experts that disagree with our methods, findings and interpretations. We reflected on the reviewers’ criticisms using logic, reason, and strength of supporting evidence, amended the methodology of our systematic review and submitted a revised manuscript to another journal.

Critical appraisal is the fuel driving continuous enhancement of research.

However, whilst we were amending our systematic review a research group from Spain published a similar review to ours (Lopez‑Valenciano et al. 2021). Frustrating but not catastrophic. You need resilience when other researchers publish their research before you! Again, we turn the disappointing situation into an opportunity.

In our opinion, the systematic review by Lopez Valenciano et al (2021) was conducted diligently, although their approach to estimating the incidence of injuries in professional women football players differed from ours. We decided to explore further the reasons and consequences of their approach by sending a letter commenting on their systematic review to the journal Editor. Our comments, and the response from the original authors, will be published if the journal Editor deems the issues of importance to the research community. We raised a variety of issues including:

  • The appropriateness of computing training and match exposure using team rather than individual player-based data
  • Whether the substantial statistical heterogeneity reduced confidence in the precision of the estimate of injury incidence
  • Whether it was wise to support inferences and discussions on single point estimates (e.g. mean values) rather than confidence intervals

If published, our letter will catalyse debates about the ‘sureness’ of the estimate of incidence injury and inferences about the burden of injury in women’s football made by Lopez‑Valenciano et al. 

Scientific knowledge never remains stable. Certainty of evidence is dependent on the quantity and quality of research studies on a topic. Confidence in knowledge is generated by replication of methods and reproducibility of findings.

Critical appraisal informs confidence and certainty of knowledge and enhances the quality of research. Criticism is something that research award students and early career researchers learn to embrace as part of their day-to-day activity.

Embrace the fear of being wrong, to drive research diligence, and be fearless of external scrutiny, to improve research quality!

Professor Mark Johnson

Professor / School of Clinical & Applied Sciences

Mark is Director of the Centre for Pain Research and leads a vibrant team of researchers. He has published over 200 research articles and book chapters and supervises PhD students. Mark teaches across all levels of our taught course provision.

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