Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process than reading an article about science in a blog or newspaper. Not only do you read the sections in a different order than they’re presented, but you also have to take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go look up other papers for some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first. Be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience.
- First get the “big picture” by reading the title, keywords and abstract carefully; this will tell you the major findings and why they matter.Quickly scan the article without taking notes; focus on headings and subheadings.
- Note the publishing date; for many areas, current research is more relevant.
- Note any terms and parts you don’t understand for further reading.
Read the article again, asking yourself questions such as:
- What problem is the study trying to solve?
- Are the findings well supported by evidence?
- Are the findings unique and supported by other work in the field?
- What was the sample size? Is it representative of the larger population?
- Is the study repeatable?
- What factors might affect the results?
If you are unfamiliar with key concepts, look for them in the literature.
- Examine graphs and tables carefully.
- Try to interpret data first before looking at captions.
- When reading the discussion and results, look for key issues and new findings.
- Make sure you have distinguished the main points. If not, go over the text again.
Take notes; it improves reading comprehension and helps you remember key points.
Steps in reading a scientific paper
Step 1: Read the Title and Abstract
The title and abstract will give you an overview of the paper’s key points. Most importantly, it will indicate whether you should continue and read the rest of the paper. The abstract is often able to be viewed before purchasing or downloading an article, so it can save time and money to read this before committing to the full paper.
Step 2: Skip the Introduction
The introduction is mostly background, and if you are already familiar with the literature, you can scan through or skip this as you probably know it all anyway. You can always return to the introduction if you have time after reading the meatier parts of the paper.
Step 3: Scan the Methods
Don’t get too bogged down in the methods unless you are researching a new product or technique. Unless the paper details a particularly novel method, just scan through. However, don’t completely ignore the methods section, as the methods used will help you determine the validity of the results.
You should aim to match the methods with the results to understand what has been done. This should be done when reviewing the figures rather than reading the methods section in isolation.
Step 4: Focus on the Figures
If you want to read a scientific paper effectively, the results section is where you should spend most of your time. This is because the results are the meat of the paper, without which the paper has no purpose. How you “read” the results is important because while the text is good to read, it is just a description of the results by the author. The author may say that the protein expression levels changed significantly, but you need to look at the results and confirm the change really was significant.
Don’t forget any supplementary figures and tables. Just because they are supplementary doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Some of the most important (but not exciting) results are often found here.
Step 5: Tackle the discussion
The discussion is a great place to determine if you’ve understood the results and the overall message of the paper. It is worth spending more time on the discussion than the introduction as it molds the paper’s results into a story and helps you visualize where they fit in with the overall picture. You should again be wary of authors overinflating their work’s importance and use your judgment to determine if their assertions about what they’ve shown match yours.
Journal articles can be challenging to read for scientists, engineers, and professors, especially when they are reading articles from a discipline other than their own. As we read more, our reading strategies become more efficient. Hopefully, you will as well!