How do we science? / Science

How to read a scientific paper – if you’re not a scientist

If you don’t use phrases like heteroscedasticity, dynamic convection, or quantitative polymerase chain reaction in your everyday life, join the club. I don’t either. But words like these can make scientific articles seem abstract and inaccessible. Have no fear, dear readers, I am here to tell you that you too can enjoy the pleasure derived from a leisurely skimming of the latest in the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics. Just kidding, I don’t know anyone who likes to read scientific articles for fun on a daily basis. Nevertheless, here’s a few tips to help you get through a scientific article and retain possession of both your sanity and your will to live.

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1) The Abstract is your friend.

I won’t claim to do this, but I think it’s pretty common discuss a paper having read only its abstract. If the abstract is written well, and correctly, it should tell you everything you need to know about the content of the paper without going into the nitty gritty details. It’ll briefly describe what the researchers did, as well as what the results were. It should also do so without using any really crazy long words and scientific mumbo-jumbo. If you find yourself reading the abstract and becoming completely lost  – like I would assume would happen to any normal person reading a quantum mechanics paper – take a step back. This might be a case where you probably weren’t going to be able to read the paper without investing in a library card and becoming an expert in the Copenhagen Interpretation. Don’t worry, quantum physics probably isn’t real anyway.

2) Skip the Methods section.

Unless you already know a little bit about whatever the science is you’re reading about, this probably isn’t going to do anything for you. The methods (or materials) section is where the researcher tells everyone how they did what they did. This can be as detailed as describing the machine used to obtain their results, or even a derivation of any mathematical equations relevant to the subject matter. Unless you’re in a position to critique those methods, or analyze their effectiveness or weaknesses, this section is only going to make your head hurt.

3) Study the figures.

Unless the paper’s topic is already pretty familiar, the Results and Discussion sections might be a little hard to understand. Skim them instead, and make sure to catch what the results were, from any included graphs, tables, or other figures. I look for where the figures are referenced in the paper to make sure I’m interpreting them correctly. You can usually find the author’s commentary on each particular result not far behind. These sections are usually the meat of the paper, so if you skip everything else, you should probably at least give them a look.

4) Read the conclusion.

The Conclusion section is usually fairly short and readable, so you shouldn’t have any problem reading it. It’ll tell you the tl;dr version of the results you may have missed/skipped.  This is also an interesting place to see what, if any, faults the researchers find with their results or methodology, as well as future directions the group may take with this research.

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5) Look that stuff up.

There’s bound to be some terms or processes that were foreign to you. If you come across them multiple times stop reading the paper and look them up. The Science Dictionary is “like google for science” but in my experience, google works just fine too. Don’t use Wikipedia for math-based concepts because those pages are unduly cumbersome. Find some online notes from college courses that will briefly explain the idea you’re searching for and get right back into reading that paper! The references at the end of the paper could also be very helpful. Look for the older papers, as they are a much better introduction to the science concepts that we take for granted now.

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3 thoughts on “How to read a scientific paper – if you’re not a scientist

  1. Pingback: Two Years of UNdertheC! | UNder the C

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