To understand a scientific paper, delve into its parts
People feel rage over chewing sounds because of their brains. Deep-sea mining could hurt an adorable octopus. Volcanoes may have helped asteroids kill off the dinosaurs. These are all stories that have appeared recently in Science News for Students. But where do they come from? Many come from the scientific literature, where scientists share their findings. Anyone, though, can read the papers researchers publish in scientific journals. And doing so can help you learn about the coolest new science — and figure out which findings might not be so trustworthy.
The papers in scientific journals can look complicated at first. They are long and filled with unfamiliar words. But there are tricks to getting through them. The biggest is knowing how these papers are organized. Each paper can be divided into nine sections. (Sometimes they get combined.) These sections are the roadmap to reading a paper and understanding the science.
The title of the paper usually tells you what the authors think is most important about their work. Maybe it emphasizes the method they used. Or their most important finding may be right at the top. Consider the title first to figure out if you want to read further.
These are the names of the scientists who did the experiments and wrote the paper. Some papers have just one author. Others can have more than 100! The paper will also tell you where each of the scientists work. That information can give you clues about the paper. If the scientists are doctors at a hospital, for instance, the paper might be about patients they have studied. A study about a new drug may come from scientists at a company that makes medicines. Scientists studying big questions about the universe or an ecosystem might be based at a college or university. A study about food might come from scientists working for a company that makes those foods. If they work for a company, they might be interested in doing work that makes that company look good. If that’s the case, you may make you want to read their paper a little more carefully. A desire to make their employer look good could bias their results.
This is the first section of the paper. It may appear in a different font than the rest of the text. The abstract is a summary of the article. It will include the reason the scientists performed the experiments, what they found and why it is important. The abstract is what many scientists read first to see if digging into the whole paper will be worthwhile. (These papers can be hard for scientists to read, too!)
If you decide the paper is worth reading all the way through, you will next encounter this section. It usually starts with some background about why the area of research is important (“drug abuse is a problem” or “bees are important pollinators”). The scientists will then focus in on the specific problem that interests them and explain why it matters. They will lay out what question they are trying to answer and how they hope to do so. They may also spell out their hypothesis here — the explanation they give for why something they observe might occur.
This section contains all the technical details of how the scientists carried out their experiment. Another scientist should be able to use this section to repeat the experiment. The methods should contain important details such as which groups were compared or what telescope was used for an observation, where the samples, animals or people were from or what areas of an environment were studied. It will also include how the questions asked were tested, what results were measured and the statistics the scientists used to analyze their data.
This is where the scientists report the data they collected. These results may be presented in graphs or tables. The text will include the results of the statistical tests.
In the discussion, researchers interpret their results. They explain what they think their results may mean. They will also place their results in context, comparing them to other studies. Finally, they will confirm why their results are important and explain what questions remain unanswered. The scientists might also include some of the limitations of their study or ways that future research could improve on what they did.
In the text of the paper, you might see numbers in parentheses or brackets, such as “(9)” or “.” Or you might see little notes that say something like “(Smith, 2017).” These are references to other scientific papers the researchers read as they developed their own ideas. In a good scientific paper, every piece of information that the scientists took from other scientific papers (or reports or books) should have a reference associated with it. This may mean there’s a note, or several, at the end of almost every sentence. The full references will be listed at the end of the paper. The references are a good place to look for more research that might interest you.
This is a paragraph that may appear on the first page of the study or at the very end. It is where the authors can thank other scientists who helped them, such as researchers who reviewed the paper to make sure it was in good shape. This is also where the authors may note who paid for the study. It can be useful to know who contributed money for the research. Sometimes funding comes from governments or organizations. Sometimes it comes from companies. Funding that comes from a company that does work related to the research in the paper might indicate that you should read the study with more care. A chocolate maker that funds a study about chocolate, for instance, may only be interested in research that makes chocolate look good. That doesn’t mean the study is a bad one. But it should be looked at more closely.
That’s nine parts. Which is most important? All of them are! Methods are important because they can help another scientist repeat the experiment. The results are important because they show not just what the researchers found, but how much those findings varied. The introduction and discussion are important because they show how the research fits into the scientist’s field. The references point you to related papers.
Now you have a map of your scientific paper. In the next post, I’ll have some tips for how to get through when the going gets tough.
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abstract (in publishing) A short summary of a scientific paper, a poster or a scientist’s talk. Abstracts are useful to determine whether delving into the details of the whole scientific paper will yield the information you seek.
clinical (in medicine) A term that refers to diagnoses, treatments or experiments involving people.
context The setting or circumstances that help explain an event, some statement or some conclusion.
data Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.
field An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.
hypothesis A proposed explanation for a phenomenon. In science, a hypothesis is an idea that must be rigorously tested before it is accepted or rejected.
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.
pollinator Something that carries pollen, a plant’s male reproductive cells, to the female parts of a flower, allowing fertilization. Many pollinators are insects such as bees.
statistics The practice or science of collecting and analyzing numerical data in large quantities and interpreting their meaning. Much of this work involves reducing errors that might be attributable to random variation. A professional who works in this field is called a statistician.
theory (in science) A description of some aspect of the natural world based on extensive observations, tests and reason. A theory can also be a way of organizing a broad body of knowledge that applies in a broad range of circumstances to explain what will happen. Unlike the common definition of theory, a theory in science is not just a hunch. Ideas or conclusions that are based on a theory — and not yet on firm data or observations — are referred to as theoretical . Scientists who use mathematics and/or existing data to project what might happen in new situations are known as theorists.