How to read a scientific paper


One of our most useful classes in graduate school was our CHEM800 Transition Metal class. Besides learning about the elemental steps of catalytic cycles, Dr. Krista Vikse also taught us how to approach and read a scientific paper. We found her approach very useful as chemistry graduate students, and we would like to share the information for all science enthusiasts because journal articles take work to read and understand the full story.

Before diving into a paper, first read the title, make note of the journal and author that published the paper, and the date it was published. The title of the article provides context to what the paper is about, so you can use keywords to make sure the paper is relevant to your interests. The journal contains articles within a similar field, and are useful information hubs for finding specialized subjects. Articles within a journal can tell you if the research and the people behind it is reputable in that area. The date when the article was published is important, because it is important to look out for outdated information. Finally, you can check keywords associated with the article to make sure it will be on topic and fits what you need. Once all these standards are met, you can start diving in in the recommended order:

Abstract and Conclusion

The abstract is the first part of the paper to read and identifies the claims and major questions of the research, but most importantly it reports the main results of the study. Reading the abstract saves time for choosing the papers you need to read. While the title can tell a lot about what the paper is about, it can only give you so much. The abstract provides more concrete clues to determine if the article contains the content you are looking for. If you are reading the article for general interest about the new things in science, the abstract can give you a summary of the paper. If you find that you are not interested in their study or that you are looking for something else, you can easily find another paper to read using whatever article repository you are comfortable using.

Introduction

The next part to read is the introduction. This section provides the background and the motivation for the work: why is it important to the field and how does this research contribute to society? The introduction should contain the background and specific research done so far that led to the motivation of the current paper. Previous studies are referenced, and if more background information is needed, those papers should be read first.

Method

Most people skip the methods section, but if you’re interested on the approaches taken and validity of the experiment, the methods will tell you exactly how the research was done, down to the model of the instrument and the specific bacteria strains used in the study. The methods should be enough to guide you like a standard operating procedure (SOP) to replicate the experiment yourself. If the information is not in the methods, it usually is in the supporting information (SI). The SI typically contains raw data or spectra and detailed methods about specific experiments. Sometimes, there is additional information that will explain why the authors did a particular experiment a certain way. Preliminary studies can also be found in this section if not included in the main article.

Results and Discussion

This section should show you the authors’ interpretation of the data and how they analyzed the results to support their hypotheses, or the main questions motivating the paper. There should be discussions on how the results support their claims and how the results create a full scientific story.

We have found this approach to be extremely helpful. It is meant to save time and streamline the reader’s approach to fully comprehend dense papers. Journal papers typically consist of condensed information and jargon. That is why it’s important to stop every time a new word or phrase is encountered, and to look it up immediately. Never continue a paper without fully understanding it. Also, markup the paper as you go. Some examples of ways annotations can be helpful include:

  • If a question popped up in your head, write it down where the question came up

  • Highlight key points or findings.

It is up to the reader to check who the authors are and their role in the institution, where the work was done, and who funded it. These areas should be checked for suitable expertise and conflicts of interest. For example, if you are reading a paper on petroleum studies you would not want people who are working with Chevron© or research funded by Chevron© to be behind your paper. While some would like to read what the paper has to say, others may not want any possible bias at all and skip the paper.

To sum up the most important tips to follow while reading a scientific paper are:

1) Always read the abstract/conclusion first. This saves your time from reading a paper that is not interesting or relevant to what you're looking for.

2) Never continue a paper without understanding what you're reading thus far. Look up definitions or additional information if needed.

3) Annotate and markup the paper as much as you need. Highlight key information and write down your questions and comments wherever that thought popped up in your head.

We hope this will be helpful to not only students and people in the science community but to the general public to easily read approach scientific papers. If you don't understand the paper the first time, that's okay, everyone will need to re-read it once, twice, or three times until the paper is clear. Each read should be easier as the annotations will give more clarity each time. There is so much to unpack in each paper, so hopefully this tutorial has helped break down the science of reading articles. Happy reading!