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Read a scientific paper

Practical tips for how to read scientific papers efficiently.

There are many different ways how scientific papers can be read. You will have to develop your own approach. In order to do this, you may want to consider some of the practical tips collected below. 


What to expect where in a scientific paper

Even though different disciplines have different cultures and each paper unique anyway, some conventions exist that are worth bearing in mind:

  1. Title
    • Ideally the content of the paper in as few words as possible; sometimes designed to grab attention.
    • For many papers this is the most you will ever see, before you have to decide if you want to read this paper. 
  2. Abstract
    • A highly condensed version of the paper, sometimes too compact for newcomers.
  3. Introduction
    • Provides the background needed for understanding the question this paper is addressing.
    • Towards the end: Points out the specific new contribution of this paper to the previous research laid out in the introduction. 
  4. Materials and Methods
    • If you want to understand how reliable the claims in the Results are, you need to understand the Materials and Methods. 
    • Often very technical; describes only what is new and specific to this paper; makes frequent references to method descriptions available elsewhere.
    • If you don't know the methods, this section can be very hard to get through as you need to learn about an entirely new method.
    • If you already know the methods in principle, then you can read this much quicker, as you only need to understand the specifics of this paper. 
    • Building up the repertoire of methods you understand will make you much quicker in reading papers. 
  5. Results
    • A list of all the observations made by the study summarized in the most concise form possible.
    • Ideally with reports of measurement errors to help assessments of reliability. 
  6. Discussion
    • Places the results back into a bigger context.
    • Discusses limitations on what can be concluded from the observations reported here. 
    • Discusses potential applications or next steps in research. 
    • Might end with an overall summary of conclusions.
  7. References
    • If you want to get into a field: pay attention to who cites whom for what. 
    • Consider looking up important papers you're interested in.
  8. Appendixes and Supporting Material
    • Many papers are written such that they maximize readability for a more general audience by moving some technical details to the appendix.
    • This can lead to situations, where most of the interesting parts for assessing the reliability of a paper can be found in the online material. 
    • Make sure you look at all online material that may exist, if you really want to understand a paper.  



Four "A"s of reading a text

There are many helpful questions you can keep in mind while reading a text. The next 4 were adapted from Judith Gray (2005, as cited here):

  • Assumptions made in the paper?
  • Agreements between your opinion and the paper?
  • Arguments against claims or conclusions you want to raise?
  • Aspirations you may have or develop that are touched in this paper?
It can be helpful to consciously answer these questions when processing a paper to clarify what you get out of a paper. 




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