Reading scientific research articles is not an easy task. Even professional scientists have trouble mastering the art of reading scientific papers effectively, so it can be quite difficult for average readers to do so.
Luckily, there are some simple strategies that anyone can use to improve their understanding of academic studies. In this article, you will learn several effective ways to read scientific research papers. These tips will apply no matter what level of science reader you are (beginner, intermediate or advanced).
Remember, however, that even more advanced techniques require basic knowledge of science. Therefore, make sure to check out our list of helpful resources before diving in. We hope you enjoy!
Reader’s note: Some links/titles in this article may contain affiliate links for us at no cost to you. By clicking through and buying something we recommend, you help support Neatorama for generating revenue to continue providing free information.
Readers who would like to see our full process for writing high-quality content and supporting ourselves while doing it feel free to check out our howtoarticlewriter.org site.
Reading scientific research articles
Most people start reading by picking up a journal or magazine and simply scanning through the pages looking for interesting material. This approach works if you already know what to look for and if you want to quickly get a sense of the overall theme of the publication.
Read it a second time
Even after you have read an article twice, there is still one more important step. Once you have finished reading the article, take some time to think about what parts of the article made sense to you and why.
It is not enough just to quickly skim through an article and then assume that your understanding of the topic has been met. You should be able to look back on the article with all of your mental notes in order to fully comprehend the content.
This way, you will know how much you knew before you read the article, and whether or not the article expanded upon those concepts. For example, if the article mentioned a term for several paragraphs, but you do not recall being taught that word before, then you would need to do some research on that concept so that you are aware of it.
Look at the graphs
The way to read an article with scientific research findings is by looking at the graph or charts it includes. These graphics usually compare one group of individuals with another, or they look at how different parts of the study affected the outcome.
There are many types of graphs used in science, but two common ones are called percentile plots and box-and-whisker plots.
Percentile plots show what percentage of people in each group achieved a certain result. This can be done either within a component of the experiment (such as whether or not they received placebo pills) or overall across all groups.
A second type of plot shows both the average and the range within a sample. An example of this would be showing the average weight of someone’s feet along with the range of weights that person measured. It helps to determine if there were differences between the groups because an average may include some very heavy people in one group and some light people in the other.
Look at the tables
Tables are an integral part of scientific research articles. They are referred to as “tables” because they look like little tablets or books.
Tables usually contain information that is organized into columns and rows. The number of columns varies depending on the table, but there are always enough for you to read about the topic and learn something new.
You will also notice that some numbers in a column go up more quickly than others. These are known as frequency numbers or proportions.
They show how often the outcome occurred, either positive or negative. For example, if one group was twice as likely to get a positive result than another, then we can say with 95% confidence that having the treatment is better than not having it.
Look for a theme
As mentioned earlier, one of the most important parts of reading scientific research is figuring out what the article’s main message is. It is easy to get lost in the details, but knowing how to identify the overall topic can save you time!
The main points of an article are usually identified through “Topic-and-Subtopic Structure.” This happens when the writer introduces the topic, then goes into more detail under the same topic. For example, the main topic may be “Dietary Supplements that May Help Keep Your Heart Healthy.” Then there could be a subtopic about Vitamin D supplements under the first part of the main topic.
This structure helps give some context to the article. What things relate together make up the meaning of the article. Having a good understanding of this concept will help you understand why someone might write an article with certain themes.
Look for a topic
As mentioned before, scientific research articles are usually focused on a specific topic or area. The article may also include an abstract that contains a brief summary of the article’s main points.
The article’s main points should be able to stand alone without referencing the original source material. Only then can you determine whether or not the information in the article is logical and believable.
You as an audience member want to make sure that none of the supporting details contradict the given conclusion. If they do, then it is probably not trustworthy.
Generalizations always sound false because we humans are very diverse. Each individual has unique experiences and perspectives that influence how they perceive the world.
For example, someone who has never tried chocolate will likely have a different perception of it than someone who loves chocolate. Even people with the same taste level for chocolate could feel completely conflicting about a particular batch.
Look for the author
As mentioned earlier, there is an important thing to consider when reading scientific research articles-the authors of the article. Who wrote this paper and what they wanted to get out their paper is crucial in determining how much information you gather from it.
If the article was published by or written for an organization, then that organization’s staff members should be able to tell you who contributed to the paper and whether they have received compensation or not for writing it. This can include past employees, current employees, advisors, and others that help manage the company.
By asking these questions, you can determine if the contributors are biased due to financial incentives to write about products or services related to those rewards, or if they contribute independently because they believe in the product being discussed.
Furthermore, you can learn if the authors misrepresent facts or conclusions in the paper to promote their own agenda. All of these things may influence how seriously you should take the study’s findings.
You also want to make sure that the researchers involved in the study conducted themselves professionally and respectfully towards other scientists and experts in the field. If someone left comments on social media criticizing another researcher, that is a good tipoff that maybe we shouldn’t trust them too much.
Read the opening and closing paragraphs
The first step in reading any article is to pay attention to the article’s title. What does the article’s title ask? It asks whether or not you are smart enough to understand scientific research.
The main goal of the author of this article is to make you feel like a genius. They want you to believe that only people with doctoral degrees can truly comprehend how science works.
This couldn’t be further from the truth!
It is very easy to read simple, straightforward articles about scientifically proven health benefits of various foods or medical treatments. These types of articles give you solid information and maybe even inspire you to try out the mentioned products.
However, these same easily accessible articles often fail to address important aspects of the studies they discuss. For example, what statistical methods were used to analyze the data, what was considered significant, and who wrote the paper influence the conclusions we draw.
Read the references
A reference, or note, is an author’s name of another study that supports their theory or hypothesis. References are not conclusions themselves, but rather proofs that other studies agree with the conclusion being referenced.
By reading the references usefully, you will learn some important things about the article you have read. First, what questions the authors answered and whether they concluded from those answers that their hypothesis was supported by the evidence. Secondly, how much weight the authors gave to each piece of supporting evidence. And thirdly, additional information such as the limitations of the research or why the researchers considered the findings less reliable.
The second thing to do after reading a scientific paper is to compare your own beliefs with the paper’s. Are there any ideas in this paper that you feel confident applying to your life? If so, great! Apply them accordingly and see if they work for you. If you find a lot of similarities between the two, then at least you know one more fact about the topic!
If, however, you find very little correspondence between the two sets of ideas, then we would say that the opposite is probably true – your current understanding of reality is quite limiting. We recommend giving the paper a closer look before making final judgments.