How to Read a Scientific Paper

If there’s one thing I wish I had known how to do before I started university, it is how to critically read a scientific article.

I am by no means a master of all scientific literature. I can say, however, that I can now navigate papers efficiently.

Now, I’m just going to get this out of the way: scientific articles can often be dry, boring, and filled with more jargon that should probably be permissible. That being said, once you get used to reading them and gain more knowledge in a particular field, they become easier to digest.

Here are three tips for reading primary scientific literature:

1. Gain some base knowledge on the subject the paper is written on.

I don’t expect you to know the complete phylogeny for all of Tyrannosauridae before diving into an article about why Nanotyrannus is a complete sham. But, you do have to have some understanding of common concepts and terminology. 

If you’re just starting out in a field, understanding the terminology can be a daunting task. However, with persistence you will soon be familiar with common terms and reading the literature will become a smooth process.

Sometimes, the author will define important terms or concepts in the introduction. If they don’t provide an explanation or a definition, you can usually find another source that will.

2. The “Materials and Methods” section is boring, but important.

When I was in school, I would notoriously gloss over the methods section. In part, there was just far too much technical information. However, do as I say, not as I do.

After writing some of my own papers I recognized the importance of a good methods section.

The methods section can help you out in a number of ways. Most importantly, it will likely tell you whether or not what you’re reading is scientifically sound. Most recently, my favourite example of a questionable methods section comes from a team of researchers who wanted to study the effect tattoo ink had on the body. You may have heard about this study from such headlines as “TATTOOS GIVE YOU CANCER”. 

It sounded like an interesting topic and it definitely would have been … if they had actually used more than five cadavers in their sample and had included important medical information about the samples they had chosen to include in their study that may have influenced their results. This is just one example demonstrating that sampling methods are incredibly important and can make or break a study.

3. Being published in a journal doesn’t make someone a scientific authority.

Recently, there has been a push to bring awareness to the fact that many for-profit journals will publish literally anything you send them, so long as you pay their fees. Most notably, you may have recently heard that Kim Kardashian and Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin, had co-authored a paper together.

Except, they didn’t and the paper was instead meant to draw attention to predatory journals who exploit researchers who want to get their work published by charging ridiculous fees. The paper was generated using a program called SCIpher, which was created by three MIT students who wanted to retaliate against predatory journals and bring awareness to the issue.

Don’t take any paper you read as fact. The purpose of science is to continuously make improvements to our wealth of knowledge and fill any gaps that may exist.

Read all papers critically and ask questions.

How to actually read a scientific paper: a brief guide

Lastly, is probably what you came to this article expecting: a guide to actually reading a paper. This graphic is a brief introduction to reading an article if you’ve never been exposed to one before. As you read more papers, you will develop your own method for getting through them and interpreting the results.

If you want to expedite the process, I recommend reading a new primary paper everyday. If you’re finding the material too dense to get through, consider reading articles in journals such as Letters to Nature,  which tend to be shorter and easier to digest.

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