How to (seriously) read a scientific paper. Elisabeth Pain. Mar. 21, 2016 , 1:15 PM. Science magazine. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/03/how-seriously-read-scientific-paper.
Many selected entries from the above article : )
There are four interview questions within. Hope it benefits you!
How do you approach reading a paper?
I first get a general idea by reading the abstract and conclusions. The conclusions help me understand if the goal summarized in the abstract has been reached, and if the described work can be of interest for my own study. I also always look at plots/figures, as they help me get a first impression of a paper. Then I usually read the entire article from beginning to end, going through the sections in the order they appear so that I can follow the flow of work that the authors want to communicate.
If you want to make it a productive exercise, you need to have a clear idea of which kind of information you need to get in the first place, and then focus on that aspect. It could be to compare your results with the ones presented by the authors, put your own analysis into context, or extend it using the newly published data. Citation lists can help you decide why the paper may be most relevant to you by giving you a first impression of how colleagues that do similar research as you do may have used the paper.
– Cecilia Tubiana, scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany
If I’m aiming to just get the main points, I’ll read the abstract, hop to the figures, and scan the discussion for important points. I think the figures are the most important part of the paper, because the abstract and body of the paper can be manipulated and shaped to tell a compelling story. Then anything I’m unclear about, I head to the methodology.
If I want to delve deeper into the paper, I typically read it in its entirety and then also read a few of the previous papers from that group or other articles on the same topic. If there is a reference after a statement that I find particularly interesting or controversial, I also look it up. Should I need more detail, I access any provided data repositories or supplemental information.
Then, if the authors’ research is similar to my own, I see if their relevant data match our findings or if there are any inconsistencies. If there are, I think about what could be causing them. Additionally, I think about what would happen in our model if we used the same methods as they did and what we could learn from that. Sometimes, it is also important to pay attention to why the authors decided to conduct an experiment in a certain way. Did the authors use an obscure test instead of a routine assay, and why would they do this?
– Jeremy C. Borniger, doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Ohio State University, Columbus
I usually start with the abstract, which gives me a brief snapshot of what the study is all about. Then I read the entire article, leaving the methods to the end unless I can’t make sense of the results or I’m unfamiliar with the experiments.
The results and methods sections allow you to pull apart a paper to ensure it stands up to scientific rigor. Always think about the type of experiments performed, and whether these are the most appropriate to address the question proposed. Ensure that the authors have included relevant and sufficient numbers of controls. Often, conclusions can also be based on a limited number of samples, which limits their significance.
I like to print out the paper and highlight the most relevant information, so on a quick rescan I can be reminded of the major points. Most relevant points would be things that change your thinking about your research topic or give you new ideas and directions.
– Lachlan Gray, deputy head of the HIV Neuropathogenesis Lab at the Burnet Institute and adjunct research fellow in the Department of Infectious Disease at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia
First I read very fast: The point of the first reading is simply to see whether the paper is interesting for me. If it is I read it a second time, slower and with more attention to detail.
If the paper is vital to my research—and if it is theoretical—I would reinvent the paper. In such cases, I only take the starting point and then work out everything else on my own, not looking into the paper. Sometimes this is a painfully slow process. Sometimes I get angry about the authors not writing clearly enough, omitting essential points and dwelling on superfluous nonsense. Sometimes I am electrified by a paper.
– Ulf Leonhardt, professor of physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel
I nearly always read the abstract first and only continue on to the paper if the abstract indicates that the paper will be of value to me. Then, if the topic of the paper is one I know well, I generally skim the introduction, reading its last paragraph to make sure I know the specific question being addressed in the paper. Then I look at the figures and tables, either read or skim the results, and lastly skim or read the discussion.
If the topic is not one I know well, I usually read the introduction much more carefully so that the study is placed into context for me. Then I skim the figures and tables and read the results.
– Charles W. Fox, professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington
It is important to realize that shortcuts have to be taken when reading papers so that there is time left to get our other work done, including writing, conducting research, attending meetings, teaching, and grading papers. Starting as a Ph.D. student, I have been reading the conclusions and methods of academic journal articles and chapters rather than entire books.
– Rima Wilkes, professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver
What do you do when there is something you don’t understand?
I will typically pause immediately to look up things I don’t understand. The rest of the reading may not make sense if I don’t understand a key phrase or jargon. This can backfire a bit, though, as I often go down never-ending rabbit holes after looking something up (What is X? Oh, X influences Y. … So what’s Y? etc…). This can be sort of fun as you learn how everything is connected, but if you’re crunched for time this can pull your attention away from the task at hand.
Sometimes, all the jargon in a paper can cloud the whole point of the experiments in the first place. In such cases, it helps to ask yourself, “What question were the authors trying to answer?” Then you can determine whether they succeeded or failed.
It depends on how much the non-understandable bits prevent me from following the main ideas. I usually do not try to understand all the details in all the sections the first time I read a paper. If non-understandable parts appear important for my research, I try to ask colleagues or even contact the lead author directly. Going back to the original references to get all the background information is the last resort, because time can be limited and collaborations and personal contacts can be much more efficient in solving specific problems.
Lately, I have had to read a number of papers outside my area of expertise with a lot of unfamiliar jargon. In some cases, I am able to directly extract the information I need from the results or figures and tables. In other cases, I use Google searches to define terms and concepts in the paper or read the cited references to better understand the points being made. Occasionally, papers are so incomprehensible (to me, at least) that I don’t bother reading them.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed reading papers, and how do you deal with that?
All the time. If the paper is relevant to a problem I am trying to solve, you can be sure that there are key things in the paper that I do not understand. That confusion is not a threat; it is an opportunity. I am ignorant; I need to become less ignorant. This paper may help me.
Simultaneously, some papers are written terribly and are not worth the effort. Someone else has surely written about the concepts more clearly so that I can keep my confusion focused on understanding substance rather than poor grammar.
– Brian Nosek, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Center for Open Science in Charlottesville
If I feel the paper is very important to what I’m doing, I’ll leave it a while and go back to it again a couple of times. But if it’s too overwhelming, then I have to leave it aside, unless someone among the colleagues I have contacted has been able to interpret it.
– Gary McDowell, postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and visiting scholar at Boston College
Do you have any other tips you’d like to share?
If there is a seminal paper I want to thoroughly understand, I find some way to give a journal club-style presentation about it. Speaking about a particular paper and answering questions is the best way for me to learn the material.
Also, get a good reference manager. Mendeley helps me do my research, read literature, and write papers.
– Lina A. Colucci, doctoral candidate at the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program
At the beginning, new academic readers find it slow because they have no frame of reference for what they are reading. But there are ways to use reading as a system of creating a mental library, and after a few years, it becomes easy to slot papers onto your mental shelves. Then you can quickly skim a paper to know its contribution.
Be patient. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to use Wikipedia or other, more lay-audience sources like blog posts to get a feel for your topic. Ask many, many questions. If you can’t get a clear understanding of the paper, talk with people in your circle. If you are still confused and it’s really important to understand the concepts, email the authors.
– Kevin Boehnke, doctoral candidate in environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
If at all possible, read often. Try to keep a bibliography file with a summary of the article, any important points, even a figure or two, along with citation information. Pay attention to different ways of structuring an article, and pay attention to different styles of writing. This will help you develop a style that is effective and also unique.
– Jesse Shanahan, master’s candidate in astronomy at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut