Here’s how you can read and understand a scientific paper in five easy steps.

Science has really revolutionized our world, and we must confess we’ve come a long way with our understanding of our world and our place in it. Unfortunately, not everyone is privileged to study science, cause of how “daunting-of-field-of-study” it is, and getting access to scientific journals is one heck of a task than breaking down all the “scientific jargon.” That’s why websites and apps like these exist to do much of the heavy lifting, by interpreting the information into layman’s language, it’s easy for you to understand. Here’s how you can read and understand a scientific paper and really understand what it means.



How Do I Get Access To A Scientific Paper?

First thing first: How do you even get access to a scientific paper? Scientific research is often blocked behind paywalls; almost a third of all scientific papers available on the internet are affiliated with a university or another institution that you need to pay before getting access to. Fortunately enough, there are online tools like Google Scholar, Chrome’s Unpaywall, and Open Access Button that will automatically search the internet for a free and legal … (PDF) version of paper if available. You could contact the authors and ask for the papers.

As Canadian researcher Dr. Holly Witteman noted on Twitter:

“If you just email us to ask for our papers, we are allowed to send them to you for free, and we will be genuinely delighted to do so.”



#1. Skim Through And Take Notes

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Most scientific papers follow the IMRAD structure — the acronym for Introduction, Methods, Results, And Discussions. This may differ depending on the paper, but the majority of scientific papers follow this routine. Take note of where these sections are and note what each one of them means. If you identify any terms you understand (and you surely would), write them down and look them up later. Take note of the date of publication to determine how fresh that paper is, and also the journal, too. Journals like Science and Nature are reputable, however, there are many fake or imposter journals out there, too.

(Pro tip: Most acronyms are usually defined the first time they’re used in a paper — type ‘control’ + ‘F’ search to find where it’s first mentioned).



#2. Re-read Again, But Start All Over

The anatomy of every paper begins with the abstract — a summary of what the paper is about. Most often than not, people read only the abstract and they’re done with the paper. Spoiler alert: the abstract gives you somewhat an insignificant fraction of the information about the paper. This is mostly the biased perception of the authors, and what they think is important to note. We guess this is your first time finding out for yourself, aren’t you? Debunker #1.

Image: Science.org / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Go ahead and start with the introduction. It explains what the previous study has about the particular field of study, which is crucial if you’re just checking in for the first time. For instance, why were they testing ‘X’ with ‘Z’ when ‘Y’ seems like the more obvious route? Well…, it’s because scientists in the 1990s tried testing ‘X’ with ‘Y,’ and it failed. So now scientists are testing new ideas. Ta-da! The introduction is the most accurate and clearly written part of the entire paper. Read it all, please.



#3. Skip To The Discussions

Reading a scientific paper isn’t the same thing as reading classic literature, where scientists take the opportunity to tell you the epic story of how they made their discoveries. Scientific papers are structured so that other scientists can replicate their experiments. What this means is that you can skip and go right ahead and check out how the experiments turned out. The discussion section is where you have a clear picture of the paper’s findings. However, don’t be surprised you’ll be left with a few questions. Note them down, and do your best to answer them in the next step. Don’t worry if you can’t, anyway.



#4. Breaking Down The Jargons

Finally, here’s where you read through the results — and perhaps the methods — for any terms you don’t understand. And take note of the scientific notations. Here are a few useful tips to look out for:

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Sampling: this is usually found in the methods section. It’s either phrased like “a total of 100 participants,” or after the letter ’n,’ as in “n = 100.” The larger the size, the less likelihood of the results being a fluke. However, never dismiss experiments with small sample sizes, this might be due to the area of study or statistical methods used. Make comparisons with similar studies to verify.

What’s “Significant”: It means something totally different in science than it does in everyday life. For instance, if you say someone is your “significant” other, obviously, you mean someone “important.” But if a scientist writes it, what he or she means is that the results are statistically unlikely to have been random — i.e., it’s probably true.

Confidence Interval: Nothing is considered 100 percent, so there’s no certainty in science. The confidence interval (CI) is a measure of just how uncertain they think things are. Let’s say scientists want to collect data about a sample and extrapolate it to the entire population, then they’d be doubtful of it. The CI is often a misunderstood concept but says, it’s how accurate their statistical methods were.

Standard Deviation: To determine the CI, you need the standard deviation (SD). This is a number of the measure of how even the data is. You can think of it as the “average of the average.” Kinda! Let’s say the average number of users on The Factionary is 1,000 users per session, for instance. However, this number could either rise or fall depending on the time of the day. There could be less than 1000 users, or even more, at any given point of the day.



#5. Evaluate Your Understanding

Finally, if you’re done reading the scientific paper, make a summary of any questions you didn’t find answers to. Do a final review of what you learned and what you still don’t understand. Now is the time to pause and ask yourself questions such as:

Image: Science News For Students / iStock / Getty Images Plus

“What specific problem does the research address?”

“Was the method used well, or even the best?”

“What are the specific findings, or is it supported by persuasive evidence?”

“Does the author(s) have an alternative interpretation for the paper?”

“Am I interested in the results, findings, or summary of the paper?”

“Will I be able to summarize it in one, or a few sentences?”

Let us know if you’ve ever read a scientific paper before.


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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Tue, May 14, 2019.

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