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.


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?

Science Event: Presentation at the Observatory


Looking to go for a night out, and being the science geek I am, I decided to attend a presentation at my local observatory on Saturday night. I arrived early and started the evening gawking at the main telescope, a behemoth in a coat of yellow paint mounted on an old gun turret. Unfortunately, there was no actual observing that night: late winter weather is a fickle thing. The presentation itself made up for that in terms of excitement. It was given by an astronomy and physics professor, hosted by the local Astronomical Society, and featured the latest information on our search for extrasolar planets.

In between occasional cheesy jokes, I learned about the difference between the Doppler and Transit methods of planetary detection. The Doppler method measures the color shift of light from stars: as they move in our direction the light waves are compressed and appear bluish, and as the star moves away they are stretched and appear reddish. Orderly patterns in this shifting can reveal the wobbling effect planets exert through gravity upon their home star. The Transit method measures the brightness of stars: planets passing between us (the observers) and the star will have a regular effect on their star’s brightness, dimming it periodically.

The Kepler telescope has detected thousands of extrasolar planets utilizing the Transit method, a hugely exciting prospect for astronomers (considering the fact that extrasolar planets only started being discovered infrequently in the 90s).

I’ll share two websites shared with us that are fun to play with and look through:

The University of Colorado’s My Solar System online simulator tool (craft different versions of solar systems with up to four bodies).

And Kepler’s Tally of Planets by the New York Times (see solar systems in action).

Our presenter left us with the advice to look out for future developments in this field: astronomers may be able to detect more Earthlike planets as time passes (larger or more massive planets are naturally easier to detect, so as methods are refined we will start finding more planets similar to our own). We may even start to be able to detect the presence of atmospheres.

If you’re looking for new science-related events to attend, I encourage you to find nearby Astronomical Societies and see if they have a schedule of lectures or presentations. The one I attended was free. This site has a search function for astronomy clubs based on location.

Check for observatories around your home, too. They’ll have public observation nights and events.

Due to the nature of astronomy, check the topic of any event you decide to attend before bringing children. There were a few in the audience at the extrasolar planets presentation, and they seemed just on the cusp of the correct age to understand most of what was going on. Some events will be better for younger children (those focusing on planets in our solar system being a good example) and some for older (the next event hosted by this Astronomical Society is on wormholes, recommended for middle school age and up).

To readers: this was the first event of this nature I have attended, and I plan on going to more. Have you been to any presentations or lectures put on by local astronomers? Do you have recommendations on topics to look for?


Image: Hobbs Observatory

Science Book Review: Weird Life

weirdlifecoverWeird Life: The Search for Life that is Very, Very Different from Our Own by David Toomey is a book with a self-explanatory title that suggests wonder and discovery. It does not disappoint.

Weird life is defined as being life that does not share a common ancestor with any of the life currently known on Earth. As in, it is life with a completely separate origin story from our own.

Toomey starts by asking two primary questions that he will go on to answer in depth in the main body of the book. What can we say about weird life? Also, would we recognize it if we saw it?

To answer the first question, he begins by describing the study of the “weirdest” known forms of familiar life: that enigmatic group known as extremophiles. These are creatures which can survive at extreme temperatures (within pockets of ice or boiling hot springs), in highly acidic or alkaline lakes, in salty brine, or in the extreme pressures at the bottom of the ocean (to name just a few places). Weird life may take on characteristics that extremophiles are already known to possess: unique biochemistries or chemosynthetic metabolisms. Toomey then explains the current search for a potential “shadow biosphere” on Earth (life that may have separate origins from all other life). Biologists have hypothesized three possible ways for such a biosphere to exist alongside life as we know it: ecologically separate (inhabiting extreme niches that familiar life cannot), ecologically integrated (existing in small numbers in inconspicuous trophic niches within a familiar microbial community), or biochemically integrated (living in close-knit relationships with familiar life, as the mitochondria in our cells were once separate bacteria which achieved symbiosis with larger microbes). Toomey explains in detail biologists’ search for weird life, using specific stories from the scientific community.

To answer the second question, Toomey begins by describing efforts to define life itself as well as hypotheses of its genesis.

After this point, the two primary questions are combined in subsequent chapters. Toomey narrates the search for life beyond Earth, mentioning specific missions (carried out or planned) to places like Mars or the moons Titan and Europa and the Kepler mission to search for extrasolar planets. He also talks about experiments designed to detect life, and how the most basic way to look for life is probably by searching for locations of chemical disequilibrium. The attempts to locate and define weird life shift from concrete scientific papers and missions to speculation (the later chapters deal with the work of SETI and its search for radio signals from potential intelligent life, weird life proposed by science fiction authors, and eventually the myriad hypotheses associated with the possibilities of multiverses).

Toomey answers his two primary questions very well and very thoroughly, using a huge range of material (hard science to imaginative postulating). Weird Life covers a lot of ground in this manner, trading detail on specific scientific hypotheses for accessibility to the reader. The tone is one of curiosity: this is a subject filled with wonder and imagination and does not disappoint on that front. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, though: Toomey does insert some notes of self-aware humor (in later chapters he has the occasional aside where he admits that he’s getting a little wild with his hypothesizing but that this isn’t meant to be only a hard-science book). Too much humor or too much seriousness wouldn’t do the subject matter justice, so he strikes a good balance.

Toomey is not a biologist or physicist, and so perhaps doesn’t have the strongest possible qualifications for writing on this subject matter (the “about” section describes him as a professor of English and technical communication) but it is clear he is proficient enough to handle the work. He has excellent writing credentials, is obviously practiced at interviews (as he includes personal interviews with scientists within the book), and seems good at building comprehensive understandings of his research (at several points he goes into broad meta-analyses of different hypotheses, including reactions within the scientific community to different papers).

Because of the presence of meta-analyses in early chapters (such as that of the Wolf-Simon paper, which was a paper that claimed to discover evidence of arsenic-utilizing microbes which received derision in the scientific community), I would’ve liked to have seen more such analyses in later chapters. This would’ve been especially enlightening in the chapter on life postulated by science fiction writers. Is there a scientific reaction to such speculations? This could’ve used more elaboration.

There were also a few things that didn’t quite fit with the overall tone or material of the book. The last chapter, on possible weird life in proposed multiverses, didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the book. It was overly long and overly speculative. It was a very interesting piece of work, but parts of it would’ve been better used in a separate essay or written in less detail. There is also a gallery of images stuck about halfway through the book. Like the last chapter, they are interesting in and of themselves but don’t really fit well with the book itself. They aren’t referenced in the text and most of them look easy to find with simple image searches. The cover of the book itself is misleading. I have a version with a photograph of a ctenophore (or comb jelly) floating through water beneath a layer of ice. To someone who knows about marine biology, the image of the ctenophore is inappropriate (the book does not mention them, a form of familiar life, at all). A more appropriate cover would probably be sulfur hot springs, microbes, or even a picture of one of the potentially habitable moons in our solar system.

I would personally recommend Weird Life to anyone interested in the prominent subject matter: astrobiology, unfamiliar organisms in science fiction, biology/biochemistry, and extremophiles. It touches on all of these subjects and relates them to the overall topic in creative, interesting ways and so is a good introduction to all of them for general readers. It relates its material in a fun, easy to understand writing style and is a quick read relative to other nonfiction books, so not a major commitment to anyone looking for some interesting reading material.

So, if you want to inject a little wonder into your reading life, I encourage you to pick up Weird Life.


To readers: do you have any recommendations or suggestions for similar books? Have you read Weird Life? I’d love to discuss!


All information from Toomey, David. (2013). Weird Life: The Search for Life that is Very, Very Different from Our Own. W. W. Norton & Company.

*note: cover image from Goodreads < >

Mission Statement


Science is not obscure. It isn’t a secret ritual performed by the mysterious denizens of laboratories. We hear about the discoveries of science and the work of scientists in the media constantly (“a new study…” or “scientists have discovered…” or “researchers found…”) and we often use such articles to think briefly about broader topics or even to make decisions about our lives. But still, there is the sense that science is separate from “us,” the general public.

There have been countless efforts over the last decade to popularize citizen science: to use non-scientists or amateur scientists to gather data on a large scale (working over a broad area or using an extensive database). This is perhaps the strongest attempt yet to integrate science directly into the lives of people whose careers do not involve it. We also engage in science for fun: nerdy television shows and games, popular documentaries, ecotourism and science museums, and recently podcasts and other works of popular science. I have always been one to absorb as much “science” as I possibly could, starting from a young age when I obsessively watched the newest episodes of PBS’s Nature and Nova, and there are many others like me.

Still, despite the rising popularity of the nerd and geek in our culture, the spread of scientific literacy has faced challenges. If you’re like me in that you’ve been watching the ongoing political atmosphere with mounting horror, you’ve probably become concerned about the future of science in the United States. There are so many people who love science and all it represents, and yet, there are so many who just don’t seem to care. Scientists and the like are “out of touch academics” or “elitists” and science is only worthwhile if it’s impeccably practical.

But science isn’t just for professional scientists. Science is a way of thinking and looking at the world. It’s a method of discovery. It’s a way of being more certain that your results mean something. You can look at anything through a scientific lens; you may even have a sort of inner scientist, yearning to break free and indulge in the pursuit of curiosity and wonder.

So how can we incorporate science into our daily lives? How can we engage in science more, when we’re not professional scientists ourselves? (Or, if you are a professional scientist, how can you get involved with science not of your particular flavor?)

I can’t answer these questions definitively, but here on The Inner Scientist I’ll document my attempts at those goals and offer advice and insight where I can. This is my first post, so I’ll lay out a sort of preliminary plan: I occasionally engage in citizen science and science communication volunteering; I’ll document those experiences and relate them to bigger issues. I’ll review science books that I read and try to become more engaged in recommending, discussing, and taking recommendations with community members. I’ll talk about science and culture in general, offering some of the wisdom I’ve gained as an undergraduate science student. I’m also a parent, so I’ll probably get involved in early child education and fun science projects.

This blog is meant to be a place to have fun and inspire your curiosity. I’d love to engage with readers and fellow science enthusiasts: please let me know if you have suggestions, want to discuss something I write about, want to collaborate or guest post, or are part of a community you think I’d enjoy (recommendations for websites, books, documentaries, etc. are always welcome).

Thanks for reading my initial post. I hope you find ways to embrace a science lifestyle and unleash your inner scientist!