Tips For Reading A Scientific Paper
Reading a scientific paper can be intimidating. I didn’t read a lot of academic research papers as an undergraduate student (my classes never really required me to and I didn’t read them in my free time), so when I started having to read more papers as a graduate student, I felt overwhelmed. Sometimes I couldn’t make any sense of the figures, sometimes it seemed like I was reading words but not absorbing anything, and sometimes there was too much scientific jargon that I was unfamiliar with. After asking my PI for advice and trying my best to practice reading many, many papers, I’ve come up with a short list of tips that will hopefully also help anyone who finds this process daunting.
Read the introduction first!
While reading the abstract may seem tempting because it’s relatively short, sometimes it can be confusing. If the author doesn’t explain some of the relevant terms or jumps straight into the experiment results, you can be left with more unanswered questions right from the start. Reading the introduction is a good way to familiarize yourself with the subject. The author will hopefully explain some terms and give the reader a broad picture of the topic, as well as briefly discuss the experiment.
What’s the big question?
After reading the introduction, try to summarize the paper’s aims in your own words. What’s the question that this paper is trying to answer? You don’t have to know what the exact hypothesis is, especially for a subject that you’re unfamiliar with, but it’s helpful to keep the goal of the experiment in the back of your mind as you make your way through the paper.
Bonus tip: When I talked to my PI about how I was having difficulties with reading papers, he suggested that, at this point after reading the introduction and asking myself what the big question is, I could come up with my own hypothesis. With everything that I know so far from this paper, what do I think will happen? Using an educated guess, what result do I expect from this experiment?
Familiarize yourself with the figures
For a visual learner like me, reading the results can be confusing sometimes so I like to look at the figures—especially if they’re in color! However, sometimes even the figures can be confusing. Some authors choose to include measurement units in the caption or annotation near the figure instead of actually in the figure, which makes it a little hard to understand at first. Sometimes different kinds of figures (bar charts vs. box plots vs. scatterplots) are hard for different people to understand, and sometimes there are just too many things going on (what do all these lines mean? Where’s the figure legend? Aaah!) Take some time to familiarize yourself with these figures and try to understand how they correlate to the paper’s “big question.”
The discussion is often times the section that I like to focus on the most. Most of the time, it will loop together all the ideas presented in the introduction with the experiment results, and will explain how everything is tied together. The conclusion will then wrap everything up neatly.
Congrats! You’ve made it through the paper. Sometimes it’s hard to understand everything in one go, so you may have to re-read it again (and again, and again). Reading papers is something that definitely takes time and patience, but you’ll get the hang of it in no time with practice.