That’s right, you heard what I said. You spend your days studying the world but you can’t even read properly yet.
“But I’m reading this article!” I hear you argue.
And you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately though, that’s not the type of reading I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more specific. More specific to someone like you, who actively studies science. I’m talking about reading a Scientific Article.
Now hear me out. I know you’ve probably read plenty of scientific articles as part of your studies. You’ve probably cited them in class assignments, quoted them in your work or even discussed them to back up an argument you’ve tried to make. Surely to be able to do these things you’d have to be able to actually read? For me though, there’s a big difference between reading, and reading. Anyone can read a text (like our Newsletter, The Lab Report for example) start to finish in the literal sense; look at the words printed and interpret the individual letters into specific words. But instead, when I say reading, I mean truly utilising and understanding what’s in front of you and taking the absolute most knowledge you can from it.
So that’s what I’m going to teach you. How to truly read a scientific article, and actually get value from it.
What is a Scientific Article?
To be able to read a scientific article, we first need to know exactly what a scientific article is. Otherwise, how would we know if we’d found one?
A scientific article is a peer reviewed, published piece of work which may either contain original research or a review of the current state-of-the-field within a particular research sector.
This means it’s been written and published following intense scrutiny from experts within the field. It would have passed through multiple review stages before finally appearing as the article you see before you to ensure as much accuracy as possible.
Why are Scientific Articles Published?
There’s a lot of valid reasons to publish scientific articles, but they typically fall into three main categories:
1. Communicating Results
- Standard research articles report on recent and novel findings, expanding our knowledge on different subjects with important new information
- Scientific literature reviews provide an in-depth report on the current state of the research in a certain field, These can be extremely helpful in guiding new research or in learning about an area you were previously unfamiliar with
- Submitting a scientific article for publication allows for peer-review of results and enables other experts to confirm or refute findings. This means it’s more difficult to have poorer research fall through the cracks and end up published
2. Dissemination of Knowledge
- Publishing papers allows scientists to present easily-accessible information
- It allows for duplication of scientific studies by other research groups, which is a very important aspect in confirming the accuracy of new research
- By publishing new papers, we are able to provide answers to questions which were previously unknown and expand the knowledge base of the human race
- Publishing scientific articles is also a great way to display the achievements of a university/company/research group
- It can also attract interest in the field and provide momentum for further research. The more eyes that are on a topic, the more likely further research is to follow
How to Access Scientific Articles
Now…this one is tricky. Unfortunately, a lot of scientific articles are still locked away behind a paywall. If we had to pay €35 for every article we read we’d be in some serious financial trouble! If the money was actually going to the authors of the article we wouldn’t feel so bad, but unfortunately it all goes to the publisher. Science is trying to move more towards open-access, but even then the authors have to pay fees of astound €3000 per paper (that’s right…per paper) to make sure the publisher doesn’t lose out on their money.
There are still some things you can try though (please don’t pay for scientific articles, it’s just not worth it).
- If you’re a student at a College or University, you can often access many publications through your institution. They often pay for full access for every student so that’s one place to try.
- Search for the article you want using the Open Access Button.
- Search using Google Scholar.
- Try using ResearchGate, here articles are posted by the authors themselves. If it’s not fully available you can request a personal copy from the author.
- Ask the author directly! Researchers are often more than happy to help you if they’re allowed to. There’s nothing wrong with sending them a polite email asking for a copy of their article for personal use if you can find public contact details online. Their info should be somewhere on their institution’s website if you need somewhere to start your search.
- That’s it. There’s definitely no other way of finding scientific articles…absolutely not…nope…nothing…don’t even try
How to Determine Journal or Article Quality
So you’ve found your article, and are eager to start learning how to read it. First though, we need to figure out just how quality this article is. There’s a few ways to figure this out.
- Impact factor of the Publishing Journal
- The Impact Factor is a number that reflects the importance of the journal in its field
- “The journal Impact Factor is the average number of times articles from the journal published in the past two years have been cited in the (current) year. The Impact Factor is calculated by dividing the number of citations in the (current) year by the total number of articles published in the two previous years.” – (Thomson Scientific, 2018)
- Clarity of Information
- Does the introduction provide sufficient background to experimental research?
- Is the information easily understood?
- Are the methods clear and open to repetition?
- Figures, Tables, and Data
- Are they labelled clearly and do they describe succinctly what is illustrated in the respective figure/table
Structure of a Scientific Article
Thankfully for us all, most scientific articles follow a very set structure.
- The Abstract summarises the major aspects of the paper, including:
- The questions investigated
- The experimental design/methods
- Major findings
- Interpretations and conclusions drawn
- Puts the work into the context of the wider area of research
- States the working hypothesis
- Briefly gives insight into the rationale behind the study and what the outcomes could potentially mean for the research community
- Should clearly describe the specific design of the study
- Provides a clear and concise description of the procedures that were performed
- Needs to include:
- Equipment used
- Study Protocol
- Outcomes and how they were measured
- Method of data analysis
- Presents the key results without any interpretation
- Typically begins with text relevant to key results before getting into graphs and figures
- Uses relevant graphs, figures and tables to display information/analysis that would otherwise take a lot of time to explain
- This section is typically organised around tables/figures, and presented in a logical and sequential fashion
- Important negative results should be reported here also, not proving something can be just as important as proving something
- Used to interpret the results in relation to what was already known about the topic
- Will typically connect to the Introduction through the questions or hypothesis originally posed, and will explain how the study has moved the topic area forward
- Do the results provide answers to your hypothesis?
- Do the findings agree with previous research?
- If not, what is our new understanding?
- The purpose of the Conclusion is to restate the main argument and reiterate the most important evidence supporting that argument
- It is not intended to be a repeat of all of the main points, but instead a synthesis of the key points
- Conclusions identify how the gaps in the research have been addressed
- It demonstrates the importance of the research
- The Conclusion will often give recommendations for future research that emerged from the study
How to Read a Scientific Article
Finally, the part you’ve been waiting for. At the beginning of this post I challenged your ability to read a Scientific Article and you’re desperate to prove me wrong. Well let’s see…
Before you Start
A few tools that might help you:
- Scientific Dictionary
- Very specific terms are used in science and some may be unfamiliar.
- To understand key scientific concepts if required (please, don’t buy them unless absolutely necessary)
- Notepad and Pen
- To jot down any ideas that interest you or that you would like to revisit.
- To note important sections of the article if you’ve printed it out. If you’re working online, we’d highly suggest using software that lets you annotate a PDF. We read all of our papers in Mendeley
Factors to Consider When Identifying Suitable Articles
Not all articles are created equally unfortunately. That’s not to say all articles don’t have merit, but some might be more useful to you. There’s nothing worse than studying a few papers to understand a concept, and then finding a much more relevant or understandable paper afterwards. Take the time to make sure what you’re about to read suits your needs, it will save you a lot of time and wasted energy in the long run.
The title should give a good idea of what the study is generally about (starting really simply here)
2. Publication Date
When researching for literature reviews, more recent articles are favoured. The notable exception here is when a paper is THE paper on the topic. Maybe they defined the terms, or discovered the concept you’re researching. Typically though, we want research to be as up to date as we can
A good resource to quickly determine whether the article covers the information in which you are interested in reading about is the abstract. Here you’ll see a breakdown of the entire paper and it can save you valuable time in selecting the right paper
These summarise the main findings and larger conclusions of the research carried out, and can be extremely helpful if you’re unsure if the paper is suitable for you
Suggested Reading Order
Now here’s where things start to get interesting. We don’t really believe in reading a paper “cover to cover.” While there’s plenty of value to be gained from this method, we think there’s a better way.
This will set you up for the key research points in the article, and will hopefully be familiar to you after reading it to help you choose this article
If you are unfamiliar with some of the methods/research topics, the introduction will provide background to the work. This will give you a solid grounding so you understand the motivation behind the work
Here’s where we go off script. If you can interpret some of the facts and figures yourself before reading about them in the rest of the article, your understanding of the work will increase dramatically! Don’t wait to be told what’s happened, take some time and try to figure some of the graphs out yourself. Then you can see if your understanding was correct, and if not, figure out what you did wrong.
Diagrams of complex mechanisms may be easier to understand than the actual description of the mechanism
Critical analysis of the research data may be performed independently of what the articles discussion dictates. You get to assess the work yourself before the authors guide your thinking. This is a great exercise in developing your own critical thinking.
Armed with a greater understanding of the results, you can now move on to the discussion and conclusion. These infer new findings from the research, provide limitations of the study and proposes future research – all very important to widening your understanding of the area
We’d challenge you to try figure out potential limitations of the study before reading the conclusion, this is another great exercise to develop your critical skills
5. Materials and Methods
These are relevant if you are intending to replicate the experiment, or if you’re curious about the study design. Often, the exact details of these aren’t required to understand the results of the study. They are, however, very important in determining the strength of the results. Good study design and adherence to scientific principles are the key to any great research
What To Do If You Don’t Understand Something
There’s inevitably going to be some information you don’t understand. We just can’t be experts in everything, and some areas might be brand new to you. If this is the case, don’t worry. It happens to us all. Here are some tips to help you when it does.
- Ask yourself “Is not understanding this point going to prevent me from following the main ideas of this article?”
- If yes, search online for a definition of the term you don’t understand
- If no, make a note of the term/point so that you can come back to it later
- Sometimes, reading the methodology will give you a clearer understanding of how/why something was done
- Acronyms and abbreviations will have been spelled out in full early on in most articles
Being an Active Reader
So we’ve already changed the order you read the paper in. Now we want to change how you actually read it. Reading an article is very different to reading your favourite book. It’s often something you’re doing with a specific goal in mind. You need to make sure you’re reading actively as opposed to passively.
1. Skim the article
- Take notes on relevant key points
- The aim here is to identify the “big question” being asked – not “What is this article about?” but “What problem is this article trying to solve?”
2. Re-Read the article
- Look at the introduction for pertinent background information
- Identify the specific questions that this article will address. There may be more than one
- If it’s an article that aims to test one or more null hypotheses, identify it/them
- Examine whether or not the article is well supported by evidence (in the form of appropriate citations)
3. Summarise the Key Points
- Take a break from reading and instead, in your own words, write down the key questions and findings from the paper. This allows you to determine your own level of understanding of what you’re reading
- By doing this, you will also identify potential areas and points that you don’t fully understand yet
4. Interpret the Results
- Examine any graphs and tables carefully
- Try to understand what they are presenting before you read any captions or headings
- Try to determine the results that address each specific question that you identified earlier, and match them up on a page
5. Check Understanding
- Look back over your notes and identify any final terms, topics or areas that you don’t fully understand
- Search for these terms online to try improve and deepen your understanding
- Take another break from looking at the text, and summarise the article again in your own words. Start with the background, then move onto the key questions, methodology, key results and conclusions
- Check if your interpretation matches that of the abstract at the start of the article. If they look pretty similar, congratulations. You just really read a scientific article.
Hopefully now you can see the difference between reading, and reading. When it comes to Scientific Articles, understanding is key! By changing the order you read the article in, challenging your own understanding, and becoming an active reader; you can take a massive leap forward in how you take in and interpret scientific data. This can be a useful skill for anyone from students to professors, it all depends on your existing reading habits. Some people have formulas that already work for them, and thats fine! But I challenge you to try this for just one article, and then tell me you didn’t notice a difference. You can let us know here, or in the comments below. And if you enjoyed what you read, you can get more of us in our Lab Report Newsletter!
Congratulations…you’ve finally learned how to read.