Science Communication

Reading Scientific Papers

Reading a scientific article infographicReading academic and scientific papers is not like reading a book, chapter, or magazine article and can often seem daunting to undergraduate- and even many graduate-level students. This page provides some tips to make things a little easier.

Types

Primary (research) articles
  • Contains original data and conclusions of the researchers who were involved in the experiments
  • Includes details about how the experiments were completed
Secondary (review) articles
  • Provide an overview of the scientific field or topic by summarizing the data and conclusions from many studies
  • Good starting place for a summary of what has been happening in a field

Tips

  • Do not try to read the article as if it was a book, from start to finish
  • Skim the article to get a basic overview, focusing on the introduction and discussion sections
  • Highlight and take notes
  • Look up terms or concepts that you don't know or are difficult to understand
  • Pause and reflect on what you've just read occasionally
  • Read the article a second time from start to end

Style

Scientific writing has a very dry and formal tone (despite some authors' best attempts at humor). Readers will also need a varying minimum level of knowledge or understanding about a subject in order to understand the paper or article.

Sections

Abstract
  • Summary of the major elements and findings of the paper
  • Read this first to determine if the paper is relevant to your topic of interest                                                                                                                                                       From Elsevier, How to read a scientific paper
  • This is a very important section when reading for classes
Introduction/Literature Review
  • Provides context, background, previous research and rationale for the study
  • Often one of the most important pieces of the paper when reading for classes
Materials/Methods/Analysis
  • Describes the experimental design and procedures used so that other researchers can attempt to reproduce the results
  • Can be very heavy with technical language and difficult for non-scientists to read
  • Can often be skimmed or skipped when reading for classes, unless the purpose of the reading is specific to this section
Results
  • Describes the experimental results in scientific terms without interpretation or bias
  • Can be a little heavy with technical language
  • Usually an important section when reading for classes
Discussion/Conclusion
  • Interpretation of the results and findings of the study
  • Tells readers what the author found significant about the study
  • Also includes shortcomings of the research and ideas for future research in the area
  • Usually one of the most important sections when reading for classes

References

Any trustworthy academic or scientific paper will include many cited references so that the reader can see where the author got the information from and so that the reader can further investigate the information and sources themselves.