How To Read And Comprehend A Scientific Paper

scientific paperFind primary research literature baffling? Violent Metaphors has step-by-step instructions on how to cut through the jargon and interpret experimental scientific findings for yourself:

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”) are actually agenda-driven.

As you read, write down every single word that you don’t understand. You’re going to have to look them all up.

Begin by reading the introduction, not the abstract.

Identify the BIG QUESTION. Not “What is this paper about”, but “What problem is this entire field trying to solve?”

Identify the SPECIFIC QUESTION(S) What exactly are the authors trying to answer with their research? What are the authors going to do to answer the SPECIFIC QUESTION(S)?

Now 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.

Read the results section. 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.

THINGS TO PAY ATTENTION TO IN THE RESULTS SECTION: Any time the words “significant” or “non-significant” are used. These have precise statistical meanings. 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?

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?

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?

Read the rest at Violent Metaphors

3 Comments on "How To Read And Comprehend A Scientific Paper"

  1. jasonpaulhayes | Oct 24, 2013 at 2:36 pm |

    Death to the Youtube Researchers and Google Scholars, you’re doing it wrong God Dammit.

    I ran into this issue today finding reliable peer reviewed journals on the effects of radiation from Fukushima, I did the best I could and posted info from UC Berkeley Nuclear Research that’s under peer review. I know that the suppression of hysteria has been a large factor in the release of any information regarding the effects of exposure to radiation for reasons I think are obvious.

    Research was conducted on Human Subjects for a generation in the US and for ex: The Tuskegee Experiments (as Abby Martin reported this week) didn’t end until 1972 if they ended at all.

  2. emperorreagan | Oct 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm |

    Wait, the proper method of reading a scientific paper isn’t:
    1. Xerox the journal or get a pdf.
    2. Stick copy or print pdf and stick it in a binder.
    3. Put binder on shelf.
    4. Forget about binder until it’s time to write a paper.
    5. Randomly flip through binder and pick references to drop into paper you’ve already written.

  3. Ted Heistman | Oct 25, 2013 at 10:26 am |

    1. read the abstract
    2. read the introduction
    3.skim through the middle part
    4. read the conclusion BAM!

    also if its not a new paper, see who all is citing the paper, that will tell you what the scientific community is getting out of it. If you are an English major type see what Sociologists and Philosophers are saying about the paper.

    That’s what I do.

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