How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists (2022)

From vaccinations to climate change, getting science wrong has very real consequences. But journal articles, a primary way science is communicated in academia, are a different format to newspaper articles or blogsandrequire a level of skill and undoubtedly a greateramount of patience. HereJennifer Raffhas prepared a helpful guide for non-scientists on how to read a scientific paper. These steps and tips will be useful to anyone interested inthe presentation of scientific findings and raise important points for scientists to consider with their own writing practice.

My post,The truth about vaccinations: Your physician knows more than the University of Googlesparked a very lively discussion, with comments from several people trying to persuade me (and the other readers) that their paper disproved everything that I’d been saying. While I encourage you to go read the comments and contribute your own, here I want to focus on the much larger issue that this debate raised: what constitutes scientific authority?

It’s not just a fun academic problem. Getting the science wrong has very real consequences. For example, when a community doesn’t vaccinate children because they’re afraid of “toxins” and think that prayer (or diet, exercise, and “clean living”) is enough to prevent infection, outbreaks happen.

“Be skeptical. But when you get proof, accept proof.” –Michael Specter

What constitutes enough proof? Obviously everyone has a different answer to that question. But to form a truly educated opinion on a scientific subject, you need to become familiar with current research in that field. And to do that, you have to read the “primary research literature” (often just called “the literature”). You might have tried to read scientific papers before and been frustrated by the dense, stilted writing and the unfamiliar jargon. I remember feeling this way! Reading and understanding research papers is a skill which 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.

I want to help people become more scientifically literate, so I wrote this guide for how a layperson can approach reading and understanding a scientific research paper. It’s appropriate for someone who has no background whatsoever in science or medicine, and based on the assumption that he or she is doing this for the purpose of getting abasic understanding of a paper and deciding whether or not it’s a reputable study.

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). Another useful type of publication is a review article. Review articles are also peer-reviewed, and don’t present new information, but summarize multiple primary research articles, to give a sense of the consensus, debates, and unanswered questions within a field. (I’m not going to say much more about them here, but be cautious about which review articles you read. Remember that they are only a snapshot of the research at the time they are published. A review article on, say, genome-wide association studies from 2001 is not going to be very informative in 2013. So much research has been done in the intervening years that the field has changed considerably).

Before you begin: some general advice

Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process than 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 for some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first. Be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience.

(Video) How To Read A Paper Quickly & Effectively | Easy Research Reading Technique

Most primary research papers will be divided into the following sections: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions/Interpretations/Discussion. The order will depend on which journal it’s published in. Some journals have additional files (called Supplementary Online Information) which contain important details of the research, but are published online instead of in the article itself (make sure you don’t skip these files).

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. Reputable (biomedical) journals will be indexed by Pubmed. [EDIT: Several people have reminded me that non-biomedical journals won’t be on Pubmed, and they’re absolutely correct! (thanks for catching that, I apologize for being sloppy here). Check out Web of Science for a more complete index of science journals. And please feel free to share other resources in the comments!] Beware of questionable journals.

As you read, write down every single word that you don’t understand. You’re going to have to look them all up (yes, every one. I know it’s a total pain. But you won’t understand the paper if you don’t understand the vocabulary. Scientific words have extremely precise meanings).

How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists (1)

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.). When I’m choosing papers to read, I decide what’s relevant to my interests based on a combination of the title and abstract. But when I’ve got a collection of papers assembled for deep reading, I always read the abstract last. I do this because abstracts contain 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.

(Video) How to read a scientific paper

3. Summarize the background in five sentences or less.

Here are some questions to guide you:

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?

The five sentences part is a little arbitrary, but it forces you to be concise and really think about the context of this research. You need to be able to 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.

Not sure what a null hypothesis is? Go read this, then go back to my last post and read one of the papers that I linked to (like this one) and try to identify the null hypotheses in it. Keep in mind that not every paper will test a null hypothesis.

5. Identify the approach

What are the authors going to do to answer the SPECIFIC QUESTION(S)?

6. Now read the methods section. Draw a diagram for each experiment, showing exactly what the authors did.

(Video) How to read a Research Paper ? Made easy for young researchers.

I mean literally draw it. Include as much detail as you need to fully understand the work. As an example, here is what I drew to sort out the methods for a paper I read today (Battaglia et al. 2013: “The first peopling of South America: New evidence from Y-chromosome haplogroup Q”). This is much less detail than you’d probably need, because it’s a paper in my specialty and I use these methods all the time. But if you were reading this, and didn’t happen to know what “process data with reduced-median method using Network” means, you’d need to look that up.

How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists (2)Image credit: author

You don’t need to understand the methods in enough detail to replicate the experiment—that’s something reviewers have to do—but you’re not ready to move on to the results until you can explain the basics of the methods to someone else.

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 find that, particularly in good papers, the majority of the results are summarized in the figures and tables. Pay careful attention to them! You may also need to go to the Supplementary Online Information file to find some of the results.

It is at this point where difficulties can arise if statistical tests are employed in the paper and you don’t have enough of a background to understand them. I can’t teach you stats in this post, but here, here, and here are some basic resources to help you. I STRONGLY advise you to become familiar with them.

Things to pay attention to in the results section:

  • Any time the words “significant” or “non-significant” are used. These have precise statistical meanings. Read more about this here.
  • If there are 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, or 10,000 people? (For some research purposes, a sample size of 10 is sufficient, but for most studies larger is better).

8. Do 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 okay 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?

(Video) How to write a scientific paper

10. Now, 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. FINAL STEP: (Don’t neglect doing this) What do other researchers say about this 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?

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.

(12. This step may be optional for you, depending on why you’re reading a particular paper. But for me, it’s critical! I go through the “Literature cited” section to see what other papers the authors cited. This allows me to better identify the important papers in a particular field, see if the authors cited my own papers (KIDDING!….mostly), and find sources of useful ideas or techniques.)

UPDATE: If you would like to see an example of how to read a science paper using this framework, you can find one here.

I gratefully acknowledge Professors José Bonner and Bill Saxton for teaching me how to critically read and analyze scientific papers using this method. I’m honored to have the chance to pass along what they taught me.

I’ve written a shorter version of this guide for teachers to hand out to their classes. If you’d like a PDF, shoot me an email: jenniferraff (at) utexas (dot) edu. For further comments and additional questions on this guide, please see the Comments Section on the original post.

This piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.

(Video) Communicating your science to non-scientists

Featured image credit:Scientists in a laboratory of the University of La Riojaby Urcomunicacion(Wikimedia CC BY3.0)

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review ourComments Policyif you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Jennifer Raff (Indiana University—dual Ph.D. in genetics and bioanthropology) is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Kansas, director and Principal Investigator of the KU Laboratory of Human Population Genomics, and assistant director of KU’s Laboratory of Biological Anthropology. She is also a research affiliate with the University of Texas anthropological genetics laboratory. She is keenly interested in public outreach and scientific literacy, writing about topics in science and pseudoscience for her blog (violentmetaphors.com), the Huffington Post, and for the Social Evolution Forum.

FAQs

How can I understand scientific papers better? ›

Reading a Scientific Article
  1. Skim the article. ...
  2. Grasp the vocabulary. ...
  3. Identify the structure of the article and work on your comprehension. ...
  4. Read the bibliography/references section. ...
  5. Reflect on what you have read and draw your own conclusions. ...
  6. Read the article a second time in chronological order.
5 Oct 2022

How does a person effectively read and understand a research paper? ›

Read it multiple times

Research papers contain so much information that it will require you to read it many times before you can fully understand it. Get an understanding of the general purpose of the research and the overall results first, then delve into the finer details once you already have a basic understanding.

What do you do when you don't understand a research paper? ›

Read the abstract. Try to predict what are the results and conclusions of the paper. Go ahead to “Conclusions” section — check whether your prediction stands. If your prediction was successful don't bother reading the rest of the paper, go to the next one.

Why is it hard to read scientific papers? ›

Scientific papers are hard to read because they contain: High density of information. Multi-syllable words. Scientific jargons for a particular field of study.

How do you read a research paper quickly? ›

Pull out your keywords. Then look at your abstract. Identify um sort of the results. And the methods

What are the 5 main sections of a scientific paper? ›

Papers that report experimental work are often structured chronologically in five sections: first, Introduction; then Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion (together, these three sections make up the paper's body); and finally, Conclusion.

How long should it take to read a scientific paper? ›

Do plan to spend anywhere from 3–6 hours to really digest a paper, remember they are very dense! Be ready and willing to make several passes through the paper, each time looking to extract different information and understanding. And please, do yourself a favor and do not read the paper front to end on your first pass.

How do undergraduates read scientific papers? ›

Reading the research paper:
  1. Read the Abstract First, read the abstract. ...
  2. Read the Introduction Second, read the introduction. ...
  3. Read the conclusion Third, skip to the end of the paper and read the key conclusions. ...
  4. Read the methods Fourth, skip back up to the methods and see what they did.
3 Apr 2020

What is the most important step to take when reading research articles? ›

- First, Read the Abstract and Conclusion (these have the main points.) - Then, Read the Introduction and Discussion for more detail. If you find anything in the Abstract or Conclusion that is important for your paper, look for it in the text.

When you read scientific papers which section should you read first Why? ›

It is better to begin by identifying the conclusions of the study by reading the title and the abstract. [12] If the article does not have an abstract, read the conclusions or the summary at the end of the article first.

How do you take notes on a scientific paper? ›

Taking Notes from Research Reading
  1. Know what kind of ideas you need to record. Focus your approach to the topic before you start detailed research. ...
  2. Don't write down too much. Your essay must be an expression of your own thinking, not a patchwork of borrowed ideas. ...
  3. Label your notes intelligently.

What order should you read a scientific article? ›

Because scientific articles are different from other texts, like novels or newspaper stories, they should be read differently. Research papers follow the well-known IMRD format — an abstract followed by the Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion.

What to do when you don't understand an article? ›

The absolute best way to understand a difficult article is to have someone else explain it to you first. All of the articles that are assigned to you in college are most likely to be peer reviewed -- which means there should be a review about the article lurking on the internet somewhere.

How do you explain a research paper? ›

A research paper is a common form of academic writing. Research papers require students and academics to locate information about a topic (that is, to conduct research), take a stand on that topic, and provide support (or evidence) for that position in an organized report.

Why is writing research papers so hard? ›

Some of the most important reasons include: The fear of the impact of the paper on your overall grade. Performing research on a very specific element of the subject. Finding credible sources.

Why is writing academic papers so hard? ›

Why is academic writing often hard to understand? Academics use an opaque style of writing for many reasons. Often authors are (understandably) enthusiastic about their research and can give great presentations to others about their work. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm sometimes doesn't transfer to their written words.

How do you read difficult articles? ›

8 Strategies for Reading Difficult Material
  1. Scan. Before reading the material, it is necessary to learn some general information on the subject at hand. ...
  2. Repeat. For shorter reading assignments, try reading the material once and then sleep on it. ...
  3. Summarize. ...
  4. Use Other Senses. ...
  5. Get Active. ...
  6. Review. ...
  7. Look Up. ...
  8. Extra Help.
29 Jun 2011

What is a research paper supposed to look like? ›

Checklist: Research paper

My paper is logically organized using paragraphs and (if relevant) section headings. Each paragraph is clearly focused on one central idea, expressed in a clear topic sentence. Each paragraph is relevant to my research problem or thesis statement.

How do you read a journal handout? ›

Read one section at a time, reflect on what you read, and don't get too bogged down with details. Search for the main ideas and supporting details. Keep reading! Recite and recall the information by summarizing and paraphrasing.

Where can I read a scientific research paper? ›

The Top 21 Free Online Journal and Research Databases
  • CORE.
  • ScienceOpen.
  • Directory of Open Access Journals.
  • Education Resources Information Center.
  • arXiv e-Print Archive.
  • Social Science Research Network.
  • Public Library of Science.
  • OpenDOAR.

What is a Science paper called? ›

Scientific papers (also known as a "journal articles") are a special type of written work that have particular characteristics: They are usually published in a periodical called a journal whose purpose is to publish this kind of work.

What are the 4 major parts of a scientific paper? ›

Typically scientific journal articles have the following sections:
  • Abstract.
  • Introduction.
  • Materials & Methods.
  • Results.
  • Discussion.
27 Oct 2021

Does reading scientific papers get easier? ›

Although it is clear that reading scientific papers becomes easier with experience, the stumbling blocks are real, and it is up to each scientist to identify and apply the techniques that work best for them.

How many papers should you read a day PhD? ›

When it comes to your own research area papers should be read carefully and critically to understand what is being done, how it is being done and if the interpretations and methods made and used really show that. As my PhD supervisor used to say, read atleast two papers a day even if you are busy with experiments.

How long does it take to read a 30 page research paper? ›

The average reader will read 30 pages in 50 minutes when reading at a speed of 300 words per minute (wpm). Typical documents that are 30 pages include novels, novellas, and other published books. A typical single-spaced page is 500 words long.

What is the most important thing that a reader expects to read in the first paragraph of the introduction of a scientific paper? ›

The opening paragraph of your paper will provide your readers with their initial impressions about the logic of your argument, your writing style, the overall quality of your research, and, ultimately, the validity of your findings and conclusions.

What are good questions to ask after reading an article? ›

Critical Reading Questions
  • Questions about the overall text. (a) What is the purpose/aim of this text? ...
  • Questions about the truth claims made within the text. (c) Are any assumptions being made in this text? ...
  • Questions about how the text could be different. ...
  • Political Questions. ...
  • Personal Engagement. ...
  • Further Critical Questions.

How do you lead a discussion in a scientific paper? ›

Leading a discussion of a scientific paper
  1. Provide a (quick) summary of the paper: In most cases, you want to first provide the audience a brief but accurate overview of the paper. ...
  2. Ask for points of clarification: ...
  3. Leading a discussion: ...
  4. Summarize the discussion:
21 Jan 2015

How do you read and summarize a journal article? ›

Summarizing Papers (Making a Lit Review)
  1. Put the author's name(s) and paper year at the top. ...
  2. Write 2-4 sentences on the problem the paper is trying to solve. ...
  3. Write 2 - 4 sentences on the solution the paper proposes. ...
  4. State 2 strengths of the paper. ...
  5. State 2 weaknesses/unanswered questions of the paper.
8 Apr 2019

What to avoid in writing an abstract? ›

What are the most common mistakes students make writing their abstracts?
  • We often leave writing them to the very last second, but the abstract is arguably the most important part of your paper. ...
  • Not having a clear rationale.
  • Using improper tense.
  • Using too much hyperbolic language or jargon.
  • Failing to state a conclusion.
10 Oct 2018

How do you read a paper 3 pass? ›

THE THREE-PASS APPROACH

Each pass accomplishes specific goals and builds upon the previous pass: The first pass gives you a general idea about the paper. The second pass lets you grasp the paper's content, but not its details. The third pass helps you understand the paper in depth.

What are the note taking techniques? ›

Techniques and Tips
  • Write phrases, not full sentences. ...
  • Take notes in your own words. ...
  • Structure your notes with headings, subheadings and numbered lists. ...
  • Code your notes—use colour and symbols to mark structure and emphasis.
  • Use colour to highlight major sections, main points and diagrams.
25 Mar 2022

Why should you take careful notes when researching? ›

Why Take Notes While Researching? While most of your research will take place before you begin writing, you will still refer to your resources throughout the writing process. This will be much easier if you take thorough notes while reading through your sources during the initial research phase.

How do you organize notes on a paper? ›

The easiest and most obvious way to organize your notes is to sort them into different folders or notebooks by type. If you're still using pen and paper, use separate notebooks for each class, subject, work project, or task. You can add tabs or dividers throughout the notebook to further separate topics.

How do you read difficult articles? ›

8 Strategies for Reading Difficult Material
  1. Scan. Before reading the material, it is necessary to learn some general information on the subject at hand. ...
  2. Repeat. For shorter reading assignments, try reading the material once and then sleep on it. ...
  3. Summarize. ...
  4. Use Other Senses. ...
  5. Get Active. ...
  6. Review. ...
  7. Look Up. ...
  8. Extra Help.
29 Jun 2011

When you read scientific papers which section should you read first Why? ›

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.

How do you understand science? ›

7 Tips for Studying Science
  1. Do the Assigned Reading Before Class Discussion. ...
  2. Read for Understanding. ...
  3. Scrutinize Each Paragraph. ...
  4. Read Each Chapter More than Once. ...
  5. Don't Skip Sample Problems. ...
  6. Work with the Formulae. ...
  7. Check your Work. ...
  8. Extra Credit.
9 Apr 2019

What is the most important step to take when reading research articles? ›

- First, Read the Abstract and Conclusion (these have the main points.) - Then, Read the Introduction and Discussion for more detail. If you find anything in the Abstract or Conclusion that is important for your paper, look for it in the text.

How can I understand what I read? ›

The following are seven simple strategies you can use to work on your comprehension skills:
  1. Improve your vocabulary. ...
  2. Come up with questions about the text you are reading. ...
  3. Use context clues. ...
  4. Look for the main idea. ...
  5. Write a summary of what you read. ...
  6. Break up the reading into smaller sections. ...
  7. Pace yourself.

What to do when you don't understand an article? ›

The absolute best way to understand a difficult article is to have someone else explain it to you first. All of the articles that are assigned to you in college are most likely to be peer reviewed -- which means there should be a review about the article lurking on the internet somewhere.

How do you take notes on a scientific paper? ›

Taking Notes from Research Reading
  1. Know what kind of ideas you need to record. Focus your approach to the topic before you start detailed research. ...
  2. Don't write down too much. Your essay must be an expression of your own thinking, not a patchwork of borrowed ideas. ...
  3. Label your notes intelligently.

What to avoid in writing an abstract? ›

What are the most common mistakes students make writing their abstracts?
  • We often leave writing them to the very last second, but the abstract is arguably the most important part of your paper. ...
  • Not having a clear rationale.
  • Using improper tense.
  • Using too much hyperbolic language or jargon.
  • Failing to state a conclusion.
10 Oct 2018

How do you read and summarize a journal article? ›

Summarizing Papers (Making a Lit Review)
  1. Put the author's name(s) and paper year at the top. ...
  2. Write 2-4 sentences on the problem the paper is trying to solve. ...
  3. Write 2 - 4 sentences on the solution the paper proposes. ...
  4. State 2 strengths of the paper. ...
  5. State 2 weaknesses/unanswered questions of the paper.
8 Apr 2019

What is the easiest way to understand science concepts? ›

Read the assigned material before class.

Take the time and actually read that material - before class. Knowing what to expect during the lecture will help you absorb the lecture material more effectively. Highlight important terms and concepts in your textbook. Write down any questions you have.

What order should you read a scientific article? ›

Because scientific articles are different from other texts, like novels or newspaper stories, they should be read differently. Research papers follow the well-known IMRD format — an abstract followed by the Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion.

How do you read a research paper presentation? ›

How to read a scientific paper
  1. Title and authors.
  2. Abstract/summary.
  3. Introduction.
  4. Materials and Methods.
  5. Results.
  6. Discussion.
  7. Acknowledgements.
  8. References.

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