Reading a scientific paper may be daunting, foreign, or frustrating. The lofty jargon used by scientists may read like a William S. Burroughs’ cut up version of the alphabet. Page after page of mathematical equations may cause you to shiver with frightful melancholies of some recessed algebra class from your distant past. Or worse…it could be calculus, a class that disturbs the best of us, even if we understand its strange universal power.
But skipping a paper entirely and looking only at headlines of summaries written by journalists can get you into trouble–there is inherent bias in the media (to say the very least) and lots of inaccuracies in science reporting. That said, it’s important to understand how to dive into a scientific paper without fear and loathing.
We’ve highlighted a few of these below, in order of where they appear in the study:
This first part of the paper provides a succinct summary of the findings. Ideally, you can read this to get a good feel for the study’s findings. Here’s what we did…and here’s what happened. Short and sweet.
The intro showcases what’s been done before, and what happened then. This is all great background, as it lays the proper masonry for the researchers’ novel contribution to science. But the intros can be redundant. If you read a lot of journal articles, you may be saying “here we go again” as you witness much of the same content and references you’ve seen before. Nerdy déjà vu. So, if you’ve been there before, jump ahead to the last paragraph. Usually, this outlines the basic research question and why the researchers are conducting the study. You’ll notice words like “In this study…,” and that’s where you should begin.
You’ve maybe thumbed (or clicked) through the pages of the methods and the results, noticing all the nitty-gritty details describing the technical details of the study. This pertinent information is mostly important for other researchers to explain the techniques used, but it isn’t necessarily required for you to understand the study’s meaning.
However, it might be a good idea to check the tables and figures for a quick look at the main results of the study. Sometimes these can be quite confusing, so if you’re not getting the key takeaways from this section, move along to the discussion.
This section summarizes the main findings of the study (alas, sometimes the discussion is combined with the results, making this tip obsolete). The discussion may still require you to do some extra digging, but if you hang in there, and maybe Google a foreign word here or there, you should be in good shape.
Often times (but not in every case), the authors will add a conclusion statement. A well-written conclusion should convey the general idea behind how the study can or will impact the scientific community, now that data has been analyzed and deductions have been drawn.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ve explore some other nuggets that are important to consider when reviewing a scientific article.
Image Credit: Dariusz Sankowski