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How to read and understand a scientific article

How to read and understand a scientific article
Dr. Jennifer Raff
To form a truly educated opinion on a scientific subject, you need to become familiar
with current research in that field. And to be able to distinguish between good and bad
interpretations of research, you have to be willing and able to read the primary research
literature for yourself. Reading and understanding research papers is a skill that every
single doctor and scientist has had to learn during graduate school. You can learn it too,
but like any skill it takes patience and practice.
Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process from reading an article about
science in a blog or newspaper. Not only do you read the sections in a different order than
they're presented, but you also have to take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go
look up other papers in order to understand some of the details. Reading a single paper
may take you a very long time at first, but be patient with yourself. The process will go
much faster as you gain experience.
The type of scientific paper I'm discussing here is referred to as a primary research
article. It's a peer-reviewed report of new research on a specific question (or questions).
Most articles will be divided into the following sections: abstract, introduction, methods,
results, and conclusions/interpretations/discussion.
Before you begin reading, take note of the authors and their institutional affiliations.
Some institutions (e.g. University of Texas) are well-respected; others (e.g. the Discovery
Institute) may appear to be legitimate research institutions but are actually agenda-driven.
Tip: google “Discovery Institute” to see why you don’t want to use it as a scientific
authority on evolutionary theory.
Also take note of the journal in which it's published. Be cautious of articles from
questionable journals, or sites that might resemble peer-reviewed scientific journals but
aren't (e.g. Natural News).
Step-by-Step Instructions for Reading a Primary Research Article
1. Begin by reading the introduction, not the abstract.
The abstract is that dense first paragraph at the very beginning of a paper. In fact, that's
often the only part of a paper that many non-scientists read when they're trying to build a
scientific argument. (This is a terrible practice. Don't do it.) I always read the abstract
last, because it contains a succinct summary of the entire paper, and I'm concerned about
inadvertently becoming biased by the authors' interpretation of the results.
2. Identify the big question.
Not "What is this paper about?" but "What problem is this entire field trying to solve?"
This helps you focus on why this research is being done. Look closely for evidence of
agenda-motivated research.
3. Summarize the background in five sentences or less.
What work has been done before in this field to answer the big question? What are the
limitations of that work? What, according to the authors, needs to be done next? You
need to be able to succinctly explain why this research has been done in order to
understand it.
4. Identify the specific question(s).
What exactly are the authors trying to answer with their research? There may be multiple
questions, or just one. Write them down. If it's the kind of research that tests one or more
null hypotheses, identify it/them.
5. Identify the approach.
What are the authors going to do to answer the specific question(s)?
6. Read the methods section.
Draw a diagram for each experiment, showing exactly what the authors did. Include as
much detail as you need to fully understand the work.
7. Read the results section.
Write one or more paragraphs to summarize the results for each experiment, each figure,
and each table. Don't yet try to decide what the results mean; just write down what they
are. You'll often find that results are summarized in the figures and tables. Pay careful
attention to them! You may also need to go to supplementary online information files to
find some of the results. Also pay attention to:
The words "significant" and "non-significant." These have precise statistical
Graphs. Do they have error bars on them? For certain types of studies, a lack of
confidence intervals is a major red flag.
The sample size. Has the study been conducted on 10 people, or 10,000 people?
For some research purposes a sample size of 10 is sufficient, but for most studies
larger is better.
8. Determine whether the results answer the specific question(s).
What do you think they mean? Don't move on until you have thought about this. It's OK
to change your mind in light of the authors' interpretation -- in fact, you probably will if
you're still a beginner at this kind of analysis -- but it's a really good habit to start forming
your own interpretations before you read those of others.
9. Read the conclusion/discussion/interpretation section.
What do the authors think the results mean? Do you agree with them? Can you come up
with any alternative way of interpreting them? Do the authors identify any weaknesses in
their own study? Do you see any that the authors missed? (Don't assume they're
infallible!) What do they propose to do as a next step? Do you agree with that?
10. Go back to the beginning and read the abstract.
Does it match what the authors said in the paper? Does it fit with your interpretation of
the paper?
11. Find out what other researchers say about the paper.
Who are the (acknowledged or self-proclaimed) experts in this particular field? Do they
have criticisms of the study that you haven't thought of, or do they generally support it?
Don't neglect to do this! Here's a place where I do recommend you use Google! But do it
last, so you are better prepared to think critically about what other people say.
A full-length version of this article originally appeared on the author’s personal blog
( She gratefully acknowledges Professors José Bonner
(Indiana University) and Bill Saxton (UC Santa Cruz) for teaching her how to read
scientific papers using this method.
... appropriate methods to evaluate peer-reviewed literature. [8] Using these as a basis, students conducted a formal literature review, with an emphasis placed on quality, peer-reviewed sources. A standardized textbook was not used for this course, as we wanted to place the emphasis of the literature survey on peer-reviewed publications and recent literature (requiring students to gather information from many sources). ...
Conference Paper
Graduate coursework in chemical engineering is typically focused on high level, theoretical treatment of the core disciplines or special topics. While both of these areas are necessary, these courses are usually theoretical and do not expose students to hands-on experimental work that many of them will be asked to perform for the research component of their degree. In addition, related topics such as a literature search for experimental methods and analysis of experimental data are often not covered in a formal manner. Even students that work on computational research projects would strongly benefit from exposure to experimental research methods. We have implemented an experiment-based special topics course that is designed to provide masters students with a strong foundation for experimental work and aid them in performing quality research. Like many masters programs throughout the country, the graduate program in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of South Alabama has three core components: completion of required course work (5 graduate chemical engineering core courses), demonstration of a mastery of the fundamental chemical engineering disciplines (a qualifying exam), and the successful defense of a thesis based on original research. Though this process is theoretically rigorous, the only place for developing competencies in experimental work is in the research component, and if a student's work is computational, this component is completely absent. To provide this experience, we created an experimental-based course for first-year graduate students focusing on production of biodiesel from algae, an opened ended challenge that allowed them to focus on specific experimental research aspects. The class was divided into three groups corresponding to the three essential operations required for the process: (1) growth of the algae (bioreactor design and testing), (2) harvesting the algae and extraction of the triacylglycerols, and (3) transesterification of the triacylglycerols with methanol to produce biodiesel (fatty acid methyl esters) and glycerol. This created the opportunity for student teams to be exposed to three separate facets of experimental research: biological reactors, separations technologies, and reactor design and kinetics. Students in this course were initially charged with performing a literature search on their particular topic, including fundamental background information, safety concerns and basic experimental details. Student teams summarized their work in bi-weekly oral presentations to the class. After students had demonstrated sufficient understanding of the process and potential solutions, they were required to develop a detailed research plan outlining their proposed experiments, timeline, and the information they expected to collect. After their research plan was approved, they were allowed to begin experiments. The algae growth team designed a phyto-bio-reactor and used the reactor to measure algae growth kinetics and to generate a sufficient mass of dried algae needed to test lipid extraction processes. Independent parameters, such a light intensity, CO2/air feed ratio, and temperature were varied. The extraction team measured the lipid content of algae samples using Soxhlet extraction to determine if chemical extraction alone was sufficient to remove the triacylglycerols from the biological matrix. The reaction group examined the transesterification reaction kinetics with specific attention paid to the effects of temperature, catalyst type, and alcohol concentration. Additionally, each group was also given the task of performing either modeling or scale-up calculations based on their experimental data. The final product from the class was the production of technical reports detailing the experimental process from initial planning to final experimental results along with final oral presentations by each team. We present the results from this class from an instructional perspective on how effectively the students were able to take on a foreign subject, internalize the background information, develop and execute a research plan, and conduct experiments that can lead to publication of quality experimental data. Student work from the course will be presented as well as modifications to the instructional process that we plan to implement in future courses and suggestions for other institutions interested in offering such a course.
... Primary literature (namely research articles) is a genuine genre of science communication, having been written by the scientists who conducted the research in order to communicate their findings to the scientific community (Beall & Trimbur, 1999;Mallow, 1991). Reading and analysing primary literature is an authentic scientific cognitive activity, as scientists' conclusions are grounded in the theoretical and empirical work of other scientists (Chinn & Malhotra, 2002;Dunbar, 1995). ...
Adapted primary literature (APL) refers to an educational genre specifically designed to enable the use of research articles for learning biology in high school. The present investigation focuses on the paedagogical content knowledge (PCK) of four high‐school biology teachers who enacted an APL‐based curriculum in biotechnology. Using a constructivist qualitative research approach, we analysed those teachers' aims and beliefs, the instructional strategies they used during the enactment of the curriculum, as well as the outcomes of the enactment as perceived by the teachers and their students, and as reflected in the class observations. Some of the teachers' strategies applied during the enactment, such as the conversational model, were specifically designed for teaching APL‐based curricula. We found that the instructional strategies applied for the adapted articles were associated with cognitive and affective engagement, active learning, inquiry thinking, and understanding of the nature of science. Suitable teacher PCK promoted learning by inquiry in addition to learning on inquiry. Students' challenges were mainly linked to the comprehension of complex, multi‐stage, biotechnological processes and methods that are abundant throughout the curriculum and required the use of previous knowledge in new contexts. A complex interaction of factors, namely teachers' PCK, the APL genre, and the biotechnology content of the curriculum, shaped the instructional strategies of the new curriculum and the outcomes of its enactment
Full-text available
This presentation introduces the first stage of critical review: how to summarise a research paper. It is based around an example from science education in East Africa.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.