Four tips for reading a scientific paper
You read an article about a scientific finding and want to check out the paper for yourself. Or you’ve been assigned a scientific paper to read in school. Or maybe you just want to learn more about something you’re interested in. No matter what, you have to read a scientific paper. Great!
Then you open up the paper. It’s long and dense. The print is tiny and it’s full of abbreviations that look like alphabet soup.
Never fear. You can do it.
Papers in scientific journals — the publications scientists use to share their findings — can be intimidating. I remember one of the first times I sat down to read one. I had just joined a lab as a graduate student, and the paper was going to be the foundation of my project.
I printed out the paper, and this is what I saw:
Mesolimbic? DAT-KO? Feed-forward enhancement? Those words looked like complete nonsense to me. I was really intimidated.
But I got through it. And you can, too. In my previous post, I explained the parts of a scientific paper, and why each one is important. Here, I’ll share the four tips that helped me get through that first scientific paper — and the thousands that I’ve read in the years since.
Set aside some time.
Reading that first paper in graduate school took me a whole day. I looked up terms and definitions, took notes and drew diagrams. But at the end of the day, I knew that paper backward, forward and upside down.
Identify the words you don’t know.
Create a list of all the words that are unfamiliar. Look up each one. You can use a dictionary, a textbook or even Wikipedia (it’s a fine place to start). Use whatever helps you to understand what the word means. Write out the definitions in a way that makes sense to you.
As you read the paper, “translate” each section into a form you understand.
Perhaps you’ll rewrite some of the sentences. Or you might take lots of notes. Maybe you will draw diagrams of a molecule, an environment or a brain area. I like to draw diagrams and take notes. But everyone has their own method.
In what order should you read the sections? Use whatever order works best for you. Some people prefer to read the methods first, others the results and still others the discussion. I prefer to read it straight through, starting with the abstract and then introduction. It helps me to form a story in my head of what the scientists did and why.
After you’ve gone through the whole paper, take the time to answer these questions:
1. What were the scientists looking for? What question (or questions) did they ask?
2. What methods did they use to answer their question?
3. Did the researchers compare two or more things? Did they look at some factor over time? Did they use a technique to identify something new?
4. What answers did the scientists come up with? Why do they think their answers are important?
5. What are the limitations of the findings? Do the results apply in all cases? Are there things to watch out for?
If you can answer these questions, you will have figured out what the paper is about. Don’t be too surprised if the results aren’t as big as a news story made them seem. Often, a single science paper will take on a relatively small question. But many small science questions, over time, add up to big changes in what we know.
Once you’ve made it through your first scientific paper, congratulations! Now, get ready to pick up the next one. It only gets easier from here.
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graduate school A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).
graduate student Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).
journal (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with the public. Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send out all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.
PhD (also known as a doctorate) A type of advanced degree offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).