Scientific research papers are the main way that scientists communicate their research. Yet, as an undergraduate, I found scientific papers impossible to read. I found myself reading sentences over and over again with no success. It used to really frustrate me that I found it so difficult. It made me question my ability; why couldn’t I understand them? But it turns out, lots of people feel this way about reading scientific papers.
Types of research papers
There are two main types of scientific paper: primary research and secondary research.
Primary research is the type of research where experiments are conducted and the results from those experiments are reported.
Secondary research papers refer to other research that has been done and comments on those results. These are sometimes called reviews, where an author brings together all the recent primary research on a topic in one paper.
This guide is going to be about primary research papers.
Where to find papers
Unfortunately a lot of scientific research is very hard to get hold of without paying quite a lot of money. If you’re a student at university then you will be able to access most papers using your university login, PubMed is the best resource for finding biomedical research papers. If you aren’t a student then there are some journals that are “open access”. PLOS is an example of an open access publisher which publishes tonnes of scientific papers in its journals for free!
The anatomy of a scientific paper
This is first of a series of posts, hoping to make scientific research less intimidating. In this post I’ll be looking at the Anatomy of a Scientific Paper: the different sections a paper is broken into and the purpose each of these sections serves.
So let’s get started!
A scientific paper is usually broken up into 9 sections:
The title is the first part of the paper you come across. Sometimes it can be something witty, or more likely, could be a really succinct description of the paper. The title is designed to get you to read the paper so the authors will often put the most interesting part of the paper in the title. A little like the headline of a newspaper, it hopes to attract your attention. The title allows the authors to highlight what they want you to focus on when you read the paper.
The authors of the paper are the people that contributed to the research and who wrote the paper. In biomedical research, there is a system when it comes to the order the authors are written in (as far as I know, this differs with different disciplines so from here out I’m referring to biomedical research).
Usually, the first name is the person that contributed most to the research and who wrote most of the paper. The names after follow the same pattern: the earlier the author is in the list, the more they contributed. If multiple authors contributed equal amounts to the research then this is usually indicted with some kind of symbol for example an asterisk (*).
Once you get to the last author, this is the lead of the research group. They often will have made a large intellectual contribution to and supervised the research but might not have necessarily done experimental work. For example, if the first author is a post-doc or a PhD student, the last author is usually the scientist who’s lab they are completing their research in.
This is a brief summary of the research. It’s the equivalent of the blurb of a novel. The abstract should include a brief background to the research, the methods used, the results that the author believes are the most important and some of the implications of these results. The main purpose of an abstract is to give you an idea of whether you want to invest the time (and the money) in reading the rest of the paper.
The introduction will lay out all the important background you need to understand the point of the research. The first thing they will usually describe is what we already know about the field. This puts the research into context. They will then usually set out what we don’t know or a gap in our knowledge. This then leads into how their research fills that gap. They will describe how their research is different from other research and outline the main aims.
The introduction should answer these questions: what do we already know about the subject, what is missing from our knowledge, the question the authors will try to answer, what the authors have done to answer this question and why we should care.
Unfortunately, this information won’t always be laid out in neat little paragraphs with subheadings for you (even though many of us wish this was the case). However, it should be there. You just might have to work a little harder to find it.
(Materials and) Methods
The methods section, unsurprisingly, gives you an outline of the methods used in the research. The aim of this section is to lay out how the research was conducted and in enough detail to allow other scientists to replicate the experiments. In science, reproducibility is essential. If a scientific study can’t be replicated then it’s results can’t be confirmed or refuted.
Because of this, the methods section can be really dry and full of very detailed protocols. Don’t let this or the jargon intimidate you. It is the equivalent of a recipe. A very sophisticated recipe, written in prose and describing possibly years worth of work. But a recipe nonetheless.
The results section is the crown jewel of the paper. The authors spent years collecting this data and have written the paper in order to present these results to you. This section will be split into text and figures. The text lays out a narrative to introduce the results. They may remind you how they did the experiment (in much less detail than in the methods section) and how the experiment helps them answer their research question.
You will then see figures (graphs, diagrams or some other representation of the data) and/or tables showing you the results of any experiments carried out. Each figure will usually represent one experiment, but might come in different sections (labelled a, b, etc.) to help break up the information and make it easier to visualise.
The discussion serves multiple purposes. The first is to interpret the results. The discussion takes the results and gives them meaning. It will place the results into the context of other research. Using other research to back up their findings, they will show how their results agree with what others have found. Alternatively, their results might disagree with all the research that has come before. If this is the case, they will use other research to suggest why their results are different.
The authors will then go on to talk about more research that could be done to help build on what they have discovered. This could either be research that they are planning to do, or it could be inviting other scientists to conduct the research. In science there will always be more questions to answer.
Some authors may also choose to include a final conclusion paragraph summarising the whole paper.
The acknowledgements section is where all the “thank yous” go. It could be to people who participated in the study such as patients, technicians that helped out with experiments or other colleagues. It could also include any funding bodies that have contributed financially to the research, this could also give you an idea about any biases in the research.
The references section includes all the resources that have been referred to in the paper. It’s also a great place to find further reading relevant to the field.
So, now that you’ve gotten to know the different sections of a research paper. You’re ready to start breaking one down. Visit the next blog post in this series where I will give you some top tips and advice from myself and other scientists on how to tackle reading a scientific paper.