Tips on Reading Scientific Papers

As a former science student, I’ve navigated the turbid sea that is the scientific literature. I’ve developed a few reading habits that may help you if you don’t have a science background. These are tips based on the assumption that you don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to understanding a paper and want to make the most of what you have.

 

how-to-read-a-sci-paper
Dr. Raff’s comprehensive guide to understanding scientific papers, from The Impact Blog

First, if you want a full, comprehensive understanding of the paper, I recommend this guide by Dr. Jennifer Raff. It’s great for anyone who wants or needs a thorough understanding of the science, such as journalists, industry professionals, or students. However, most people don’t have much time to spare on endeavors like this. Dr. Raff’s guide is a process that will take multiple hours, depending on the length and complexity of the paper. So what if you’re short on time but still want some understanding?

 

It’s likely that you found the paper through a news article. This is always a good starting point since it’s the journalist’s job to translate the material for general audiences. So start there. If you want to go deeper, here are a few additional tips based on the usual layout of a scientific paper:

Abstract: this is the condensed summary of the paper, so it seems like a good place to start, right? It can be, but be wary of stopping here. There isn’t much context or explanation, so you’ll probably have more questions than answers upon reading it. So continue immediately. The condensed wording might also mean extra technical jargon as well. I usually use Abstracts to figure out which papers I want to read (which are most useful to whatever question or interest I have at the moment).

Introduction: the beginning of the Intro will usually have the broad, background context for the research. What field is being studied? What is known or not known? It will generally narrow down until it identifies the specific research questions for this paper. The beginning and end of the Intro, therefore, are the most important parts to read, but the entire section and its context are all useful if you want to really understand this area of science in general. Make a note of unfamiliar terms and look them up if they seem important (sometimes there will be a side note or bit of background that isn’t necessary to understand for the paper in question; otherwise Google is your friend!).

Methods: usually placed after the Intro (or after a subsection identifying the research questions), but occasionally at the end of the paper. If you want a quick understanding of the science, it’s okay to just skim the Methods for an overview of the work. It’s important to take note of sample sizes, study locations, and get a general sense of the methodology (was there field research or lab research involved? If it’s medical, were the subjects human or animal?). If you don’t have a background in science, this section will usually be very jargon-heavy and difficult to parse, and if you don’t have much time it probably won’t be worth looking up everything you don’t know. I usually only spend a lot of time on Methods if they’re important to what I’m doing (designing experiments for my classes) or if I actually have questions on what the researchers did.

Results: again, if you don’t have a background in science, skimming this section is okay. Pay attention to figures and graphs, as they’ll usually summarize important parts of the data, and work hardest on understanding those; a good paper will have good figures. You may not have a background in statistics, but there are a few resources to help you out in general. The Science Writer’s Handbook has a great chapter on basic stats that are useful for understanding papers, and I’ll summarize a few important points: correlation does not imply causation, but it is suggestive of some relationship; pay attention to confidence intervals (large intervals or intervals that include zero may be a bad sign); know the difference between relative and absolute risk in medical studies, and look for p-values (a p-value of 0.05 or less is best: it means the results were significant and unlikely to have occurred by chance). “Significant” is the most important word to watch out for in statistics: it means that the relationship uncovered is more likely to be real and not just a chance occurrence.

This is a good introductory statistics tutorial for anyone interested in learning more.

Discussion/Conclusion: this section (or pair; occasionally you’ll see both) is very important for understanding both the scientific context and relevance of the paper. The researchers will interpret their results and relate them to broader contexts, so if you have trouble with the Results section, it’s okay to skip to the Discussion (as long as you’re not worried about researcher bias—I’ll have future tips posts on looking for bias in scientific papers). Often the researchers will also pose questions and future lines of research; these are important to pay attention to if you’re interested in the general field and want to keep up with it. However, if the interpretation of the results is what is most important to you, look for subheadings, subsections, or paragraphs on each result (if this was a multistep experiment with multiple results) and skim the big-picture explanations at the ends of these sections.

References: if any piece of background information raises questions for you or seems especially interesting, track down the citation (in the text of the paper, citations will usually be the name of an author and date of publication for a cited background paper or occasionally a number directing you to a specific entry in the References). Looking up these papers for additional information if you have time will give you a bigger sense of where the study fits in the field and also additional science knowledge (always a good thing!). A note: expect some papers to be behind paywalls: then you will likely only have access to the Abstracts.

General Tips: Printing out the paper in question and marking notes on it is probably the best way I’ve found for organizing and keeping track of my thoughts.

These have been my tips for understanding a scientific paper. It’s essentially the procedure I used in college when I didn’t need a full understanding of a paper and what I still do when I’m a little extra curious about a news article.

To readers: do you have additional tips or resources of your own?

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