Keeping up with the scientific literature in your field of interest is in incredibly important. Not only does it keep you informed as to what your competitors have been working on, it will also help shape and guide your experimental plans.
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 along time at first. Be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience.
Most primary research papers will be divided into the following sections: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions/Interpretations/Discussions. The order will depend on which journal it’s published in. Before start to reading the article, take note of the authors and their institutional affiliations. Also take a note of the journal which it’s published. Then, write down every single word that you don’t understand.
STEP-BY-STEP INSTURCTIONS FOR READING A PRIMARY RESEARCH ARTICLE
- Read the Abstract
The abstract will give you an overview of the key points of the paper. Most importantly it will give you an indication of whether you should continue on and read the rest of the paper.
- 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.
- Summarize the background in five sentences or less
You can use some question to guide you like, 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?
- Identify the specific questions
What exactly are the authors trying to answer with their research? There are may be multiple questions or just one. Write it down. If it’s the kind of research that tests one or more null hypotheses, identify it/them.
- Identify the approach
What are the authors going to do to answer the specific question?
- Read the methods section. Draw a diagram for each experiment, showing exactly what the authors did.
Draw the diagram as much detail as you need to fully understand the work. If you just a review the articles, you don’t need to understand the methods in enough detail to replicate the experiment. But you’re not ready to move on to the results until you can explain the basics of the methods to someone else.
- Read the results section. Write one or more paragraphs to summarize the results for each experiment, each figure, and each results mean, just write down that they are.
Things to pay attention to in the results section:
a. Any time the words “significant” or “non-significant” are used. These have precise statistical meanings
b. 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.
c. 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).
- Do the results answer the specific questions? 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.
- 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?
- File it away
Spending a little time filing your read papers away now can save you a lot of time in the future. Use a reference management system and ensure that the entry includes:
a. The full and correct citation
b. A very brief summary of the article
c. Any appropriate tags.