HOW TO READ A SCIENTIFIC PAPER
(for research)

P.E. ROWE

 

So you have an assignment that requires you to read a scientific research paper. One of the first things you’ll probably notice is that there is a ton of information in a document like this. In addition to the volume of information in a research paper, there’s also the complexity of the material. These things are not easy reading. At first glance, primary scientific research can be overwhelming.


But with a few easy strategies for negotiating papers like these, you’ll find they’re incredibly useful and much easier to approach than it may seem initially. Let’s get started.


One of the biggest challenges you’ll be wrestling with as a college student—or really as a scholar or scientist at any level—is time management. You only have so many hours in your day, and you have a ton of work to do. Probably the most important question you need to ask yourself, you’ll be asking yourself over and over again: is this a valuable use of my time? And that’s the main question you’ll be wrestling with while doing research.


If you walk into a major library, instantly, you’ll see far more books than you could ever read and digest in a lifetime. And what you see on the shelves is merely a drop in the ocean of the entirety of published books and articles, which keeps expanding constantly and at an increasingly rapid pace. The trick, if you want to be a good scholar, isn’t in reading everything, it’s in reading the right things. Figuring out what books, journals, and articles to read is an important skill, and usually the critical question to ask yourself is the same as before: is reading this article or book a valuable use of my time?


In this video we’re going to take a close look at the anatomy of a scientific paper. We’ll also show you a bulletproof process for helping you to figure out how a paper can be useful to you in the shortest amount of time possible. So let’s not waste any more time:


Scientific papers are usually read for one of two main purposes: comprehension or research.


When scientists and scholars read a research paper for comprehension, their goal is to fully understand and digest the paper’s contents. They read the entire paper, evaluating the authors’ methods and tactics, considering whether their hypotheses are valid and their conclusions are sound based on the design and results of the experiment performed. They look for potential problems or flaws the researchers may have missed. And they evaluate where this new research fits into the broader context of the field. You have to really know a field well to be good at reading a scientific paper for comprehension. You probably won’t be asked to read a scientific paper for comprehension as often early in college. Reading for comprehension is more important when you’ve built a strong knowledge base in the field and are looking to understand and design specific experiments of your own within a specialty.


More likely, as a newer scholar, you’re going to be reading papers for research, and this takes a different set of skills. There are so many papers out there on almost every topic. So finding which papers are right for your specific research topic is one of the most important skills a student can acquire. Even more, learning how to find the right paper in the least amount of time will save you hours and hours on search engines and in digital archives that you don’t really want to waste.


When you read for research, the goal is to determine whether how useful the paper you’re looking at will be for your purposes in a short amount of time. So the goal isn’t to comprehend everything but to survey key parts of the paper that will tell you what’s in the paper, and this will give you clues as to whether the paper will be great for your project or won’t help you at all. Essentially, what you’re reading for here is a yes or no—yes, this paper may be helpful or no, this paper is a waste of my time.


It’s likely you’ll come across many papers that are closer to a maybe than a definite yes or no—for instance many papers that do research on a similar general topic in a field will cover background information on that topic in their introductions. So all of these papers could be somewhat helpful to you when it comes to finding out general information about your topic, even if only a few of them cover the specific information you’re looking for. But once you have a paper or two in hand that adequately cover the background information you need, the subsequent papers you come across that cover this background info but not your specific research needs should become a no—that information becomes excess stuff to sift through that isn’t a good use of your time.


So you have your first paper in front of you:


The first and most important thing to remember is that you should never commit to reading a paper until you’ve determined that it is the right paper. Never begin by reading the whole paper! This approach has the potential to waste hours of your time.

Second, once you have a paper in front of you, the first thing to look at is the title. Think about how close the paper’s title is to your specific research topic. Are some of the main words the same? If not, you should probably be skeptical about this paper’s usefulness, but don’t abandon it just yet. Many, if not most, scientific papers these days will have a short list of key words on the first page of the paper, usually just after the abstract—look at these next. Like with the title, you’re looking for overlap in your topic. If a few of these keywords line up with your research topic, you’re probably getting warm and should continue surveying the paper for signs you’re on the right track. If you haven’t seen any overlap in your research topic with the title or key words, be very skeptical: this is a sign that this paper may be a waste of your time. If you get the sense that your time would be better spent searching for a better paper, then it’s time to abandon this article and continue searching for a better article in the search engine.


Third, If you think you may be on the right track, the next thing you’ll want to do is read the abstract. The abstract is the first paragraph of text in a scientific paper, right after the title and the list of authors. Abstracts are short summaries of the article’s contents. The abstract’s job is to tell a potential reader exactly what the paper is about—very similar to the blurb on the back of a book or a movie trailer. After reading the abstract, you should come away with a very good idea of what will be in the paper. If you’ve looked at the title and the keywords, and you’ve finished reading the abstract and there still isn’t any real overlap with your research topic, it’s definitely time to ditch this paper for something more relevant. Again, don’t waste your time reading unhelpful articles. If there’s considerable overlap between the title, keywords, and abstract, you probably have the feeling that this paper could be useful. Great. But we still don’t want to commit to reading the whole paper just yet. Let’s keep surveying.

Fourth, the next thing you’ll want to do is read the paper’s introduction. This isn’t necessarily a deep read at this stage. Again, we’re still just surveying to determine whether this paper is a good use of your time. So the goal is just to get a good sense of whether this article is right for your research purposes. The introduction should present two important points clearly: 1. A fair amount of background information on the topic of the paper, and 2. The specific question the researchers are attempting to answer with their experiment. Both these ideas can be useful for your research purposes: the background information should help you gain a better general understanding of your topic; and, if the research question overlaps with your topic, the body of the paper—the Methods, Results, and Discussion—should give you a lot of useful information about your topic. If either of these areas are lining up with your research topic, you’re definitely on the right track. Hang on to this paper, but still, you probably don’t want to commit to reading the whole article until you have a few similar potentially useful papers in hand to compare it to.

Fifth, sometimes after reading an abstract and an introduction, you may get the sense that the paper isn’t quite what you’re looking for, it’s only somewhat related to your topic. Don’t abandon that type of paper just yet, it can still be useful as a research tool. Every scientific paper will have a list of references at the very end of it. Many of these lists are pages long with so many references that reading or even skimming this reference list may seem fruitless. But if the article has some overlap with your research topic, there will usually be a useful paper or two (and maybe even the exact paper you’re looking for), which you can find by using this references list. You just need to learn how to find that perfect paper fast. Skimming through the titles in the references section will sometimes be the best way to survey for another useful paper. But if the references section is long, this may not be the best use of your time. However, if you’ve identified a few of your keywords as being relevant, you may be able to find a particular section or paragraph of the paper that has some good information about your research topic. You can then survey this part of the paper and see which references are cited when the author is presenting information about your topic. There may only be a few citations in that section, but those citations will give you the name of the author who wrote in greater depth about that topic. You can then re-check the references list for that author’s name: when you find that name in the references, this will lead you to the title or titles of other articles on your research topic. See if those paper titles overlap better with your research topic. If they do, you have a better, more specific avenue for research now. Sometimes you can grab a handful of useful leads this way. Even though this first paper you’re surveying now might not be the one you’re looking for, it’s serving as a useful tool to lead you to your final destination, and you haven’t wasted your time surveying it. But we’re not finished quite yet.


One final useful tip is that scientists and scholars in all fields tend to specialize on very specific topics or areas of study. It’s likely that the author of the paper you’re surveying now has written similar papers to the one you’re looking at, and maybe even one much closer to your research topic. You may want to cross check your lead author’s full name and your main keywords in the academic search engine you’re using. If the paper has multiple authors, the first author listed is always one of the main authors. (Sometimes the second listed author or the last author will be considered main authors as well).


Along these same lines, you may also have noticed that a specific scientist is cited repeatedly when referencing your topic in this paper. If this is the case, definitely look carefully at the titles of that author’s papers in the references section. You may even want to do a keyword search with that author’s name in the search engine as well. An author who is frequently cited on your research topic is definitely a useful lead when doing research for your project.


One of these techniques is very likely to lead you to another useful avenue of research if you haven’t found one yet. If you’ve spent considerable time researching and are still struggling to find the right information, it’s possible you’ve found a topic where the research on it is sparse. It’s also possible you’re missing something in your approach. If you’ve spent a lot of time and are still frustrated, it’s a good idea at this point to consult a research librarian. They’re the professionals when it comes to finding information and can help you both with a specific project and in refining your research techniques. And they’re usually very friendly, approachable, and love this kind of stuff!


Also bear in mind while searching that you’ll rarely find that one perfect source that contains all the information you need—background information on the general topic, as well as the specific type of scientific experiments you’re looking to research. A number of good sources that get close to the mark are usually what you’ll be looking to compile, so that you can combine the information in several different research papers to give you a broader picture of the field. Don’t get too distracted looking for one perfect paper that you waste a bunch of time looking for the one perfect source that may not exist.


Your goal, time-wise, when you’re researching, should always be to get to the right information and waste the least amount of time possible while getting there. In this video we covered several helpful techniques to help you do just that, using a scientific paper as a research tool. To recap:


  1. Don’t read the paper!

  2. Begin by surveying the title and keywords to determine how well these keywords match up with your research topic.

  3. If the title and keywords look good, read the abstract.

  4. If the title, keywords, and abstract look promising, quickly read the introduction to get a sense of the paper’s subject matter. If there seems to be a lot of overlap, GREAT, you’re on the right track.

  5. If there’s only some overlap, poach this paper’s reference section for leads to a closer match with your research topic.

  6. You can add the lead author(s) name/s to you keywords in a database search.

  7. Similarly, you could add the name of a source frequently cited when referencing your topic to your keyword search.

  8. If you’ve surveyed a long list of papers and you’re still going nowhere, seek help from your friendly local university librarian.



All this may seem like a lot to remember right now, but researching is a skill. And like any skill, whether it’s painting, playing tennis, or doing yoga, you’ll get better and faster at each of these techniques the more you use them. It may help to keep this list of steps nearby as you research for a while. Soon, though, you’ll find that you’re performing each step without even thinking about it, and saving yourself a lot of precious time in the process!