How to: Reading Scientific Papers

Guest Author: Christine Doronio

Academic journals can feel overwhelming with jargon filled titles and experimental methods the public has never heard of. However, with more of the world looking at science and data for answers, it is important to know how to effectively read and understand these types of articles.

There is no single correct method to properly read a scientific article. Over time everyone develops their own strategy on what works best for them. Hopefully these suggestions will help you get started and dispel any fears of reading the latest data in science!

Check where the article is from

Before reading, it’s helpful to answer a few questions about the paper itself. When and where was this paper published? If it is a few years old, there may be more current data. Is it from a reputable source? The answers to these questions can help identify the quality of the paper and the data it’s putting forward.

NOTE: Typically, reputable is defined as a peer-reviewed academic journal, but standards are changing. A quick indicator of reputability is if a document is assigned a Digital Object Identifier (DOI). A DOI enables tracking and referencing. Journals that assign DOIs will be listed at Sciforum Statistics. Ediqo has a comprehensive checklist for reputability.

Identify the major question

Each paper is generally framed around one major question the authors are trying to answer called the hypothesis. This is usually found in the title and is restated in the abstract and introduction.

Skim the WHOLE paper

After reading the title and identifying the main question, skim through the entire paper. Don’t spend time taking notes or reading figure legend text. Focus on the major headings and figure titles to get a general idea of the purpose, study, and conclusions.

Read the introduction to gain background knowledge

Once you have the main question and a very general idea of the paper, take a look at the introduction. The purpose of the introduction is to provide the background information needed to answer the main question. Here you’ll find keywords and definitions, what is currently known about the topic, and some of the issues that the researchers are trying to solve with their hypothesis.

Look at the figures and analyze the results

With the background information and hypothesis in mind, read the results and analyze the corresponding figures. Ask yourself if the statements in the results are supported by what is shown in the figures. It might also be helpful to go through the materials and methods while you look at the figures for details on the experimental setup.  Again, don’t be afraid to ask questions and be critical during this section. Did the author use proper controls? How big was the sample size? Does that method really support the author’s conclusion? Scientists are always questioning the data!

NOTE: Proper controls vary by the type of research being done. In general for a medical study the control group receives the current standard of care vs. the experimental group that receives the experimental care. Often, it would be unethical to deny standard care to the control group. The point of the control group in any study is to show - "this new way of doing something has a different effect from the current way."
The FDA has a website explaining clinical trials.
Statistics How To has an explanation of a control group. 

Scan through the discussion

The discussion of the paper usually provides a nice summary of the entire paper and possible future implications of their work. Here you’ll find the author’s rationale for their conclusions, potential caveats with their study, and how their data fits in with the current state of the field.

Dont be afraid to ask for help

Reading scientific articles is difficult! Don’t be afraid to ask a friend for their thoughts or look up a question on Google. Even the most experienced scientists often look to colleagues or journal clubs to help analyze certain papers.

Take Action

Many science journals like Nature are moving towards free access to their articles. Read an article in the most recent edition of Nature.