How to read a scientific publication

One skill I think a lot of younger science students lack is the ability to read a paper quickly, dissect all the information and then decide whether the paper is good, bad or somewhere in between. Like many people, I have developed my own method for reading a research article, so I thought I would share it in the hopes of helping others to get through what can sometimes seem like a very daunting task.

  1. Read the title (duh)
    I realise this seems extremely obvious, and you probably did this to choose the paper in the first place. When I’m reading a paper that I really want to understand and remember I write notes on a blank piece of paper about it as I go. So naturally at the top of the page I write the title of the paper. Step 1 done!
  1. Read the abstract
    This gives you the general idea of the paper & what they have done/what you can expect from the paper. This is also the stage at which I decide whether I want to continue reading on.
  1. Read the last paragraph of the introduction
    I usually don’t even bother with the introduction of a paper unless I skim it very quickly. The exception to that is if I don’t know the field and I need a bit of background. But I always read the last paragraph of the intro as it is like a super brief summary of the whole intro, and usually states what question the authors are trying to address. At this stage I go back to my notes page and write down the question I think they are trying to answer/ the hypothesis they are testing.
  1. Skip straight to the figures in the results section
    Here I look at the figures, read the figure legends and write down what I think each of the figures shows. I then read the results section from start to finish to see if the authors and I have reached the same conclusions about the data. This is the best part in my opinion. Sometimes you think the data says exactly what the authors have said it does, sometimes you don’t. At the end of this section, I usually go back to my notes and write what the main points and ideas of the paper are. Sometimes it can be useful to re-draw the important figures in a more basic way- this helps me to wrap my head around some things I don’t get at the time.
  1. Read the methods section
    I tend to do this briefly, but this is often where you you can decide whether the paper is good or not (if you didn’t decide in the results). Here is where you can decide whether their experiments were designed well or not. After reading the methods I like to write down a few points about where they could have improved the study.
  1. Briefly read the discussion and then the conclusions
    I don’t really find the discussion section very helpful, however sometimes it can be interesting to read. The discussion tends to be the most biased part of the paper, and sometimes people make some huge leaps when interpreting their results and putting them in the perspective of the field. Remember when reading the discussion that often the references are there to support their conclusions. If the authors discuss papers that disagree with their results, kudos to them! I still like to read the discussion though. After reading the discussion and conclusion I like to write down the interesting points of the paper, what they showed and how (if possible) the work may relate to my own.
  1. Write your own conclusion about the paper you read
    Here I re-state what I think they were aiming to do and whether they did it. What was new, and what were their limitations in this study? I also write down the questions that I still have about the paper, and if I read the paper again in the future I go back to this notes page and try to answer those questions.
  1. Check if there are any references that you want to follow up on/may be of interest to you.

So that’s how I read my papers when I want to really understand them and take notes. Many people will disagree with this method of reading a paper, but each to their own! Please let me know how you read a paper & if you have any other tips.


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