Updated: Feb 3
by V. D.
Have you ever been in a situation where you start reading a scientific research paper and feel like you are trying to unlock the enigma code? I have. A typical situation would arise: your teacher gives you an essay assignment, you get very excited about the topic and head straight to the library, open the first paper you found, start reading it, and you end up giving up in less than five minutes as you do not understand a single thing.
During my undergraduate degree, I struggled to fully comprehend the research articles and express my opinion concerning them. Higher education requires you to be able to break down complicated topics and absorb and interpret the research in your area of interest. Every essay you write, every exam, library, or laboratory-based project you take requires extensive background reading and clear understanding. The arguments you form in academic writing are always backed up by the primary literature you read and show your competence in the research area.
Thanks to my PhD research, I have finally gained insight on how to correctly read the papers to not only get the important message from it, but to also ‘fit’ its findings into the bigger picture. Reading a research paper is very different from reading a textbook or classical literature – at first, it will take you a long time to read a single article. But do not give up as the more experience you get of doing so, the faster you will become at extracting the information you need. There is no right or wrong way to read an article, but I will share my way with you and give you some useful tips, so you can find your way!
First things first: your setup
I know that might sound obvious, but the location and time of day can impact the way you absorb the material. Trying to read a paper next to the swimming pool or on the sofa may not be the most productive choice when you start. Try to find your work bubble, whether you are in the library or at home. Put all distractions away.
The time of the day and week also matters. You should not start reading a very complicated article before going to bed or when you have a couple of minutes while your dinner is cooking. Make sure you allocate enough time to get into the material you are reading.
The best way to start is to get a paper format of the article (print double-sided to be environmentally friendly). As you get used to reading the articles you can start replacing these with the electronic copies on your computer or tablet. Regardless of your choice, you should consider using a highlighter and a pencil to identify the most important aspects of the paper and always make notes within the article. When I first started, I made the common mistake of highlighting almost half of the sentences as I thought everything was crucial. Big mistake. Read a paragraph, stop and think: what is the writer trying to get across? Look for phrases, single words – highlight these and it will be much easier to come back to the article later on.
Writing my ideas and thoughts within the article as I read through it works well for me for taking notes. However, others use a separate piece of paper to get down their thoughts. If you go for the second option, I suggest you either have a separate notebook for the articles you read or you staple any loose pieces of paper you used at the back of the article.
The common mistake students do is that they find a very complicated research article from a high impact journal and go straight into it. I suggest you first read around the topic you are interested in – textbooks or the internet is a good way to start. Textbooks often give you a review reference at the end of each chapter. If not – go onto PubMed, write down the keywords you are interested in in the search tab, and select ‘Review’ in the filters. Reviews are a great way to understand the topic and grasp the current elements and limitations in the field. You can then start looking at the papers that authors reference in the review and build up your knowledge that way.
Before you start: general tips
Almost all primary literature is formed of well-structured sections: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, and References. Some articles will have something called ‘Supplementary material’, which is usually not published and can only be found online. Before you start reading the article, make sure that you check for any supplementary data and have it ready to refer to.
Another important suggestion is that you check the journal’s impact factor before you get down to reading the paper. The impact factor is the measure of a frequency with which the articles in a journal have been cited in a given year. It is generally considered that the higher the impact factor, the better the article is and that is what the professors and tutors look for. It is also a good idea to check whether the journal peer reviews its articles as this parameter greatly affects the reliability of the research in a given paper.
Make sure that you have an Internet browser open while reading the paper. Look up every word or scientific vocabulary you do not understand!
Finally, before you start reading an article, you should ask yourself: what is it you are trying to get out of the paper you are reading? If you are interested in the main points of the paper: you need to focus on the abstract, figures, and figure legends. If you wish to use their methods you need to mostly focus on materials section, results, analysis, as well as supplementary figures. However, most of you will probably implement the finding of the paper in an essay argument, so you need to immerse yourself fully into an article.
Dissect the article
1. Read the abstract to get an idea of the experiments and the significance of the research. Reading this will allow you to easily understand whether an article is relevant to you. A good abstract will also give you a sentence about the impact and limitations of the experiments the group has performed, which you can later use in your essay writing. At this stage, you should have a clear view of whether the paper is worth reading or not.
2. Skim through the figures and figure legends. If there is a technique that is new to you, consult the methods section to understand it. I find it easier to interpret the results and identify the limitations of the paper when I fully understand every step of the technique used by the authors. A great way to do this is by watching videos on JoVE – a peer-reviewed scientific database which walks you through every step of any technique.
3. Go back to the results section. This time, try to read it in more detail and make notes. A good quality paper should give you enough information to interpret the results within the figure legends, and that is what you should pay the most attention to. It is also very important to understand the first and last sentences of each paragraph of the results section as this is where the why and how are embedded. In parallel to that, keep on consulting the methods to see how the authors have done their analysis.
4. Delve into the discussion. This is a very important part of the paper as it shows you how the data fits into the bigger picture. Pay attention to the references that the data agrees with as well as the ones that show opposing results. Sometimes a group cites the papers their data is in agreement with, and when you look at the references you realise it is the same group! It is okay to do so, but there should be some other affiliations that have reached similar conclusions. It is also important to look at the articles the authors disagree with as this is where you can start forming your own opinion and argument. Your critical thinking skills are in full employment here!
5. Go back to the introduction. This step is essential as it can help you avoid missing any important background aspects. Make sure that you compare the big question outlined in the introduction to the arguments in the discussion section. Anything the authors have not addressed can introduce you with an interesting perspective on the topic.
6. Finally, it is a good idea to go through the paper all over again. I still discover new aspects of the articles that I think I know by heart. Every time I look at the same article it spikes new ideas.
V. D. did her BSc in Biomedical Sciences at University College London, focusing on molecular biology and virology. She then pursued an MSc in Experimental Pharmacology and Therapeutics in UCL's School of Pharmacy, where she became interested in the molecular dynamics of the brain. Valentina is a UCL ORS scholar currently doing a PhD in Neuroscience at UCL. Her PhD focuses on molecular assembly and function of major inhibitory receptors in the mammalian brain.