As a budding scientist, learning how to read or write scientific papers is a key skill to develop and requires tons of practice. As the typical saying goes - “publish or perish” - these two processes are unavoidable if a scientist intends to succeed in their academic or research career.
Here’s something that might sound relatively surprising to you: to a certain extent, you ought to take the content presented in a scientific article with a pinch of salt.
In our world today, publishing a paper in a journal isn’t as hard as opposed to a few decades ago. This, in turn, implies that the publication of low-quality work (or even inaccurate results) is not as rare as you may think. For this reason, it is critical to learn how to navigate through all the “noise” and spot reliable articles. Below are a few quick steps to guide you through the process.
Step 1: Familiarise yourself with the structure of conventional scientific articles
Primary articles vs. reviews
As you browse through the Internet, you may have noticed that researchers can present their ideas through two different types of articles: primary research articles and literature reviews. Both of them are equally crucial for scientists to continuously push through the boundaries of what we know.
Primary research articles will include experimental results generated by the authors along with an in-depth analysis of them to produce a solid conclusion. You’ll often see these articles providing the assumptions the group has made before performing laboratory work. They will then present the materials and methods used, several figures and graphs to explain how their experiments were designed (e.g. what their independent and dependent variables are), and what kind of insights can be drawn from the data gathered.
On the other hand, review papers incorporate data from the primary research work done by other scientists. It is often designed to provide a big-picture overview of a certain topic, discussing what is known, past and current research efforts to better understand it, and what else is still yet to be found. The writer could also use this as an opportunity to share their opinion on a topic.
Of course, there are several key similarities and differences between the two types of articles in terms of their purpose, content and structure. Let’s go through each of them section-by-section:
The abstract is found in both the primary research papers and the literature reviews, whereby it provides a brief yet comprehensive overview of what the article is intending to convey. Essentially, it is an effective summary of the research group’s main findings, coupled with a well-synthesised conclusion and some short notes (usually their opinions) regarding the future outlooks of the field.
For both research papers and literature reviews, the introduction covers the context of the piece and any important background knowledge pertaining to the area of research discussed. This is also a section where the authors essentially share the scientific question that they intend to explore in this particular article. In research papers, the author would often highlight the hypothesis that they have posed for solving a primary question, based on what the scientific community already knows.
This section is where the discrepancy between the two types of articles occurs:
This section is, arguably, the most important section of any scientific article.
In the case of research papers, this is the key area where the authors get to elaborate on what they think the results of their experiment suggest and what the data implies about the scientific question or hypothesis they have proposed. As the name of this section suggests, this is where the authors discuss and evaluate what their experimental data show (in the case of research papers), as well as any limitations for the experimental procedures carried out. In the case of a literature review, it is also a platform for the author to point out any weaknesses, limitations, or flaws that previous research may have.
Following that, the authors will usually highlight what kind of questions they were unable to answer in this article, thus linking them to a proposal of future studies and experiments that could be carried out in order to further support present findings and answer the questions that they cannot at the moment.
Whenever you are reading, it is always a good practice to constantly ask questions. For instance - do the results fully support the author’s conclusions? Are the proposed experiments sufficient to answer all of the addressed questions? Are there any gaps within the data that were left unexplained?
The best sources to help you get started
With a myriad of resources that are available online, finding a paper to read might seem intimidating initially. But fret not, as Nature, Science, The Lancet, and Cell are a few of the most established journals, and they are definitely a good place to start. Meanwhile, PubMed and Google Scholar are also great online databases embodying a broad range of open-access papers.
Step 2: Reading the article
The process of understanding the content of journal articles is the most critical part. Here are some simple tips to help you get started!
Always begin with the abstract
As scientific papers are filled with complicated data, and you will definitely come across a multitude of foreign jargon in almost every other sentence. The abstract usually provides a comprehensible summary of the key points that the article is trying to convey. In fact, you can also use the abstract to filter out articles you are not interested in, as just looking at the title may not tell you much.
Look for the obvious
Sometimes, reading the first and last sentences of each paragraph within an article might be a good strategy to adopt. This technique could help you grasp the general information covered in a paragraph.
Look for pictures, numbers and graphs
Figures are also a great place to start, as the whole purpose of them is to illustrate the experimental findings in a concise and reader-friendly manner, with the important pieces of data highlighted. Furthermore, they are always accompanied by figure legends, which typically explain the presented data in a concise manner.
Step 3: Take note of the important points
A fairly obvious step, we know. But how exactly can we do it?
Once you have a clear idea about what the article is talking about, you could organise your findings into a few sections. Here are examples of the categories you could consider:
What are the research questions?
What are the experimental techniques employed?
What kind of results are obtained, and how are they analysed?
What do these experimental results imply?
What are the limitations of this study?
Final quick tip - believe in yourself!
Whenever you take a first glance over a journal article, the content may appear foreign, dotted with strange data and figures. Nevertheless, don’t be discouraged! Reading itself is an art, and with practice, you will soon be able to quickly grasp key concepts and findings the articles aim to convey. Practice makes perfect!
Approach each section in an orderly fashion
Interestingly, the process of reading and writing is almost the opposite of each other. For example, the abstract is the first part of the article that readers engage with, but it tends to be the last section to be written.
As mentioned above, the abstract is an important part of the article as it gives the readers a broad overview of what the piece covers.
To help you get started, a rough guide to ordering and writing each section is given below:
1. The introduction
This section provides the audience with fundamental background knowledge, placing the project under the context of the broader scientific field and justifying its significance for research. The introduction should also state the goals of your experiment and could also present your proposed research hypothesis.
2. The body
For a research article, be sure to clearly present the materials and methods used. The body is also where you will present the main findings and data obtained from the experiments conducted. It is important to provide a detailed description of your results here.
For a review, the content from a range of sources will comprise the majority of the body. They should be selected with care to support your thesis using greater detail.
3. The discussion and conclusion
By writing the content for the previous sections, you will have developed a holistic overview of the topic you wish to discuss.
In the case of research articles, the discussion is where you analyse the main findings of your experiment, the underlying conclusions that can be drawn from them and what the implications of your results are. It is also important to evaluate your findings and claims, presenting any key limitations of your study.
In the case of a literature review, in addition to compiling the research findings and results from other journals, you should also remember to also propose your own informed views and analysis about the topic. This, in turn, can then help you to draw an effective conclusion for your own article.
4. The abstract
Finally, it’s time to write the abstract. The abstract is essentially a succinct summary that covers the background, findings, conclusions and future implications of the research. Hence, you will need to fully understand the entire picture of your experiment (in the case of writing a research article) or other researchers’ work (in the case of writing a review) in order to effectively communicate all of the elements above.
The final step
To finish up, it is important to provide references as part of crediting the researchers who came up with the original experimental data and theories.
Once this is done, be sure to always check for spelling and grammatical errors. Additionally, asking for feedback from peers or teachers is also an excellent way to help gauge if you have communicated your ideas in an effective manner.
You are now all set to go, good luck!
Author: Lily Jiaqi Cao, BSc Biochemistry