If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you’ve googled “how to read a scientific paper” at some point. This post answers just that. Whether you’re a student doing your assigned reading, an inquisitive reader hoping to understand the science behind the headlines, or anything in between – welcome!
I remember the first time I read a scientific paper. I was in my first year of undergraduate biomedical sciences and I honestly don’t even remember what the paper was about. I do, however, remember how it made me feel. I sat there reading the same sentence over and over again and I felt so helpless.
I sat with my head in my hands thinking: “There must be a better way!”
It turns out there was, and over four years I developed my own strategy for reading scientific papers. In this post, I’ll take you through some great tips and tricks, from myself and other scientists, to help you tackle scientific papers!
In my previous post I introduced the structure and sections of a scientific paper. Have a check back on that post if you need to refresh yourself.
This method involves taking multiple “passes” through a paper to fully understand and critique it. The beauty of this method is that each time you go through the paper, you look at it from a different perspective. The first pass through a paper is a fact finding mission. The goal of the first pass is to understand the structure of the paper, where to find key information and to get some general background around the motivation of the paper, the research question(s) and how the authors have addressed those questions.
This post will be taking you through how I complete a first pass through a scientific paper. You don’t need to understand every single aspect of the paper on the first try and the more papers you read, the easier this process will become – I promise!
So, let me take you through how I do a first pass. Don’t worry if you can’t achieve everything I set out in this first pass guide, it will come with practice. Get comfortable and take it at your own pace.
So without further ado, let’s begin.
There are a couple of schools of thought around whether you should read abstracts first. I tend to only use the abstract for the first pass to decide if I’m interested in reading the paper and then to frame the paper for me. This gives me a good idea of what to expect throughout the paper. Use the abstract like you’d use the blurb for a novel: do I want to read this? What kind of paper is this? You can then adjust your reading style accordingly.
The introduction will give you some great background on the research and will also introduce how the authors addressed their research question(s). As I discussed in my previous post, introductions should address these questions:
- What do we already know about the subject?
- What is missing from our knowledge?
- What question(s) are the authors trying to answer?
- What have the authors done to answer this question?
- Why should we care about this research?
Try to answer these questions before you move on to another part of the paper. Remember, the majority of the time this information won’t be laid out as neatly as we’d all like. But here’s some key phrases to look for that will give you a clue!
Top Tip! While your reading through the paper write down any questions that come to mind about anything you read. Particularly if you’re reading a paper in a field you aren’t familiar with, you’re likely to have a lot of questions. Writing them down means it won’t upset your rhythm when reading. If they haven’t been answered when you’ve done your first pass through the paper then you can do some extra research before you have a go at the second pass.
The introduction could be filled with a lot of terminology you haven’t heard before. Here’s a great tip from @thebeatythatsurroundsus_:
“Go through and highlight the words you don’t understand – once you’ve looked them up it’s so much easier to read the paper”
I also recommend writing down every acronym and initialism you come across. I guarantee you’re going to forget what they stand for after about 3 sentences! Make your life easier by writing them down so you don’t have to track back through the paper to remind yourself!
I personally think that the next place to tackle is the results section. You might be asking, why are we jumping around the paper? Well, while the methods are of course useful for understanding the research, the first pass is about gathering information about the paper, so the intricate details of the methodology aren’t really necessary for a first pass. The text in the results section will give you enough information around the methods to be able to interpret the figures and tables.
Have a look at the figures, see if you can identify the key information from the figures, how does x affect y etc. Once you’ve had a go, go back and read the text within the results section, they’ll state the key information from the figures here so you can see if you spotted all the information the authors wanted to you to (maybe you even noticed something they haven’t brought up).
Top tip! Don’t get caught out by “significant”. In scientific writing, the word “significant” doesn’t just mean large or important, it means something very specific. It means that a statistical test has taken place and the result has been deemed unlikely to be due to random chance.
You can then take a look at the Discussion. This section will be using the information from the results section and other wider sources to answer the questions posed in the introduction. Once you’ve read through the discussion, refer back to the research question(s) you identified earlier and try to summarise the answer to each questions in three sentences based on what you learned from the discussion.
Here’s another great tip from @phd_universe:
“I like to copy and paste the parts of the paper that I want to dissect and then I read those sections aloud to myself. I then rewrite the text as bullet points to make it simple for me to understand”
Once you’ve read those sections you can choose to look through the methods, though I usually don’t do this until the second pass through the paper. Depending on your scientific background, you may or may not gain much understanding from reading the methods at this point. The methods are very detailed and they are usually very dry, which can make them pretty difficult to read. The first pass is an information gathering mission so don’t beat yourself up if you struggle to understand the methods.
If you do choose to read the methods more thoroughly here is a process for getting through the methods. Go through each experiment/ section of the methods and summarise how they were done using bullet points and your own words. This doesn’t have to be particularly technical, remember you’re doing it for you. This will make it easier, when you go back to the results section on subsequent passes, to be able to fully interpret the corresponding figure for yourself.
Now you’re ready for a second pass
Want to check your understanding? Have a go at writing your own abstract based on your knowledge of the paper after reading it. If you’re able to explain the key points of the paper within the word limit of an abstract then you know you understand it!
After your first pass you should have a decent grasp of the context of the paper, on the second pass you can begin to think more critically about the methods and conclusions used by the authors. I’ll be writing a guide on how to look at a scientific paper more critically, check back soon for the next instalment of “scientific papers simplified”!