HOW TO UNDERSTAND A SCIENTIFIC PAPER
If you’re new to scientific research, reading scientific articles can be a challenging new experience, but it’s a critical one. Scientists have their own particular way of communicating their work to the broader scientific community, and it’s necessarily very formal and often challenging for non-scientists to understand.
We’ve covered how to use scientific articles as research tools in a previous video linked here, but what we’ll cover in this video is the bigger challenge—how to begin to understand scientific articles. We’re going to offer a bit of help—a code if you will—for unlocking what any scientific article is saying, and we’ll offer some technics and tactics for how you might go about understanding difficult to understand topics. Learning to read and understand important information in your field on your own is the best gateway to becoming a student and scholar who can chart their own course in both university and in their career. So let’s get started:
If you’ve watched our video on how to use scientific papers as a research tool, you already know that scientific papers have a structure that allows researchers to survey the paper quickly so they can determine if that paper is going to be useful for their project. But once you’ve determined that the paper you’re looking at is going to be important for your project, you need to understand what’s in it—maybe not every detail, but certainly the main ideas.
We’ll start with a couple helpful strategies you can use that will help before you even start reading:
First: Read general information about the paper’s topic before you dive in to the specialized material in a scientific paper on that topic—wikipedia, educational videos, and more general articles will help you to gain a foothold before you begin reading, which will help you to develop a basic understanding of the material. Scientific papers are specialized documents with a lot of field-specific language. Because the authors are writing to other scientists like them, they will often assume the reader has a much better understanding of the basics of the topic than a newer researcher will.
So do yourself a favor by making sure you understand a little bit about the topic in everyday language before diving into the specific/technical language of a scientific paper. By introducing yourself to the basics first, you stand a better chance of absorbing the more complex elements the paper discusses in the more technical sections.
Second: Start with the easy stuff first: Read the abstract, introduction, and conclusion first just to get an idea of the paper’s main ideas. These sections are usually the easiest to understand and contain simpler sentences that explain the authors’ methods and summarize the study’s results. Finding places where the main ideas are already summarized will prepare you for the more complex elements of the paper.
Third: Let the scientific method & the paper’s structure be your guide.
The structure of almost every scientific paper is going to roughly mimic a set formula that follows the scientific method:
The Introduction, the Methods, the Results, the Discussion, and the Conclusion.
Some papers will even name their sections in that way—I, M, R, D, & C, and when that’s the case, it makes it a little easier on newer scholars and researchers. However, some papers will use headings that are more specific to the exact topic being covered. And some papers will have additional sections or paragraphs that won’t be labeled directly as I, M, R, D, & C. But all scientific papers will have these 5 parts in some form. What’s going to be helpful to understand with each of these parts of the paper, is that every paper will very closely follow the scientific method.
Scientists are writing these articles to communicate with other researchers in their field, but one of the things that makes understanding papers like these difficult is that their intended audience—other scientific researchers—already understand at least the basics of their topic. If you’re still learning these basics, it might be tough to get the nuance of each paper, but you can use the general outline of the article to grasp the major points. Each section has its specific purpose that you can use to help understand the overall meaning of the paper. We’ll take these sections one by one:
Introductions are always going to contain the scientist’s research question—this is the key piece to every article. Usually the research question is going to be very close to the title of the paper. So that’s your first clue as to what the research question is. The introduction is also going to contain most of the background information a reader should need to understand why the scientists are trying to figure out the answer to this research question: Things like—
What is the focus of the research—essentially the main topic?
The Background Information
What basic information does the reader need to know in order to follow the discussion?
What prior research has been done on the topic and what knowledge has that prior research provided about the topic of this study?
Why is the answer to this research question important either within the field specifically or more broadly to society?
The answers to most, if not all, of these questions should be provided in the introduction. So if you finish the introduction and are at all confused, stop and before continuing try to answer the following questions:
What are the scientists trying to figure out?
Why do they want to know this?
Everything else that follows in the article will be presented with the purpose of communicating those two major ideas.
Next, the scientists will present their methods. Essentially, the methods section is a way for the researchers to explain how they attempted to answer their research question. This section is usually technical, complex, and not always easy to read. It’s very often the case that testing a research question will involve multiple steps and specialized techniques that are both complex to perform and complex to communicate to readers. At first, understanding these techniques can be very challenging, but you probably don’t need to understand every detail to understand the main ideas. Remember that the authors are trying to communicate their methods to other scientists in great detail. This allows other scientists who have performed similar experiments to consider and compare the authors’ methods to their own experiments or other similar experiments, and it would also even allow them to replicate the authors experiments, so the level of detail in the methods section is often far more specific than most readers will need for a basic understanding of the article.
When you’re reading a methods section, the key questions you should be looking to answer are:
What are the researchers testing?
What the experiments test should be similar to the main research question. Sometimes there may be multiple steps that need to be tested to get answers to the main question, but the experiments described in the methods section will always relate back to the main question—the main topic of the article.
How are they testing it?
What techniques do the researchers employ to make observations about the topic being tested? Sometimes this step will involve specialized equipment, mathematical models, or other scientific tools that might be unfamiliar to non-specialists. These details will often be the most challenging elements of the article to contextualize and understand, and you may not always need to fully understand every detail to understand the paper as a whole.
What could that test tell them about their initial question?
Lastly, the methods section might cover what certain results of these tests indicate. Nothing scientists do while testing their research question is arbitrary. They may sometimes be surprised by the results of their tests, but those results will always mean something. Depending on the article you’re reading, the authors may offer their predictions or expectations and what those predictions would mean if the results of their test turn out a certain way. Even if the authors don’t offer any conjectures in their paper, readers may be able to make some predictions about the way the experiment will turn out and what that would mean one way or another.
The Methods section of scientific papers may be the most important piece of a scientific article to understand—at least at a basic level. If you don’t understand the researchers’ methods, you’re going to struggle to understand what the results of their experiments mean. So spending a little extra time here understanding the tests the researchers are performing and why may save you a lot of head scratching later when trying to understand the results of the experiment and the discussion that follows. So in addition to considering the three questions we’ve talked about in this section, there are a few important strategies to employ while reading:
1. Slow down and take your time here.
Reading a scientific paper is not like reading a novel or a news article. You’re supposed to take time to think and consider what the researchers are doing. It’s not only okay to pause and figure things out, it’s strongly recommended. Nobody just breezes through a scientific paper like a beach book. Even the smartest and most experienced scientists need to take their time to understand the most difficult parts of these papers. So if you feel like it’s a struggle, remember, that’s normal.
2. Look up specialized language or terminology you don’t know.
Of all the parts of any scientific experiment, the methods section is most likely to introduce you to specialized terminology or techniques. More experienced scientists, who work with these techniques regularly, will already be familiar with them, and so often things that sound very complex may go unexplained in scientific papers. Take the time to look up the terms that seem to come up repeatedly. If it seems important, it’s probably important. Sometimes a single missing piece can unlock your understanding of the whole paper. And you’ll find that often even complex-sounding new terms (a Likert scale, for example) actually have fairly simple ideas behind them that you can understand easily once you look them up, which will help you to better understand the current article and scientific experiments more broadly as you progress as a scientist.
3. Look for key sentences that will help guide you through difficult paragraphs.
In most body paragraphs of a scientific paper, there will be a topic sentence—a sentence that lets the reader know what each paragraph is about. This will usually be the first or second sentence in the paragraph. Good topic sentences are straightforward and usually perform the function of preparing the reader for the details to come by highlighting the main idea of the paragraph. If you’re dealing with a paragraph with a lot of technical terms or complex new ideas and get stuck, seek out the topic sentence of the paragraph as a guide to what follows.
After scientists relate their methods, they’ll share their results with their readers in the Results section. And it’s important to remember that their audience, generally, will be specialists in this field—people who do similar scientific work or professional work that relies on this very specialized knowledge. So it’s likely that until you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the lab or in the field doing similar work, the results of these scientific experiments may be tough for you to interpret on their own. Just like the methods section, this takes time. Results sections will likely be filled with graphs, charts, and mathematical formulas that you may not understand, especially if you’re new to a field or reading a paper that is outside your field of expertise. However, if you’ve taken the time to understand the research question and the scientists’ methods, you’ll probably have some idea of what certain results will mean.
It’s also important to remember that the scientific process requires that the authors share all of their data. And because that amount of data may be too much for many of their readers to sift through, most authors will summarize their important findings somewhere in the results section. Look for key phrases like:
“Overall, we found that…”
“The results showed…”
“The data we collected indicate that…”
And look to answer the following key questions
What does the data indicate generally?
Are there any key pieces of data that the authors highlight as significant or meaningful?
Is there any surprising or unexpected data?
The answers to these key questions should be found in the written part of the results section even if you aren’t ready to directly interpret this information from the tables, graphs, and charts that are usually included in results sections. Once you can answer these key questions, you should be ready to interpret that data, or at least follow the discussion where the authors do.
The discussion section is the part of the paper where the authors wrestle with the implications of their results. Essentially, they’re discussing what the data they recorded means based on the methods they employed. Or more broadly:
What did this experiment demonstrate?
What do we know now that we didn’t know when we began?
What does that mean with respect to the research question?
How does this new knowledge fit into the broader understanding of the field?
Essentially, the discussion is the attempt the authors are making to make sense of their data in two ways. They relate their findings to the paper’s main research question, but they should also discuss how this new understanding of their research question fits into the larger discussion of this topic within the field or in society at large.
Lastly, scientific papers will almost always end with a conclusion. Often conclusions are a recap of the main points covered in the paper. This is a good opportunity for the reader to confirm that what they understood about the paper is correct. Additionally, researchers will often use conclusions as an opportunity to suggest further research on new questions that may have been raised by their results or as a next logical step in understanding a complex topic. When reading conclusions as a newer researcher take the opportunity to use the conclusion as a confirmation of your understanding. If you find anything new, surprising, or contradictory to your understanding of the paper, double check that new piece of information to be sure you’re reading it correctly, and if it still doesn’t seem correct, go back and explore the appropriate part of the paper to be sure you understand the point. Most likely, though, the conclusion will just serve as a recap or a reminder of the important points of the paper and a place to propose future research.
Now, you might already be familiar with much of this basic information about the structure of a scientific paper, and if that’s so, great, you’re already one step ahead. What’s important when trying to understand a new scientific paper is to remember that every article is going to express this same basic information about the work the scientists are doing. It can be easy to lose sight of that basic truth in the formulas, graphs, technical language, hundreds of long words, and math. Remembering that returning to the basics of the scientific method—as followed by the structure of scientific articles—will help you to understand the essence of what the scientist are trying to communicate in their paper.
So to recap the main points covered in this video, we employing the following strategies when trying to understand scientific research papers.
1. Read general information about the paper’s topic—wikipedia, etc. before diving deep into the paper.
2. Start with the easy sections first: Read the abstract, introduction, and conclusion before reading the methods, results, and discussion.
3. Let the scientific method & the paper’s structure be your guide. Interpret each section—the I, M, R, D, & C with the understanding of what each section should contain and how that information relates to the paper’s main research question.
4. Look up acronyms, abbreviations, and terms that occur frequently that you don’t understand.
Sometimes learning what a handful or even one of these new items means will be the key that unlocks the meaning of the whole paper for you.