How to Read a Scientific Paper

Keeping up with the scientific literature in your field of interest is incredibly important. Not only does it keep you informed as to what your competitors have been working on, it will also help shape and guide your experimental plans.

At the same time, a balance is required between being well read-up and being productive in the lab.

My PhD supervisor once told me that you should spend no more than 30 minutes reading a paper. Sometimes even this can be too much of a time commitment. Say, during your thesis write-up or when preparing a paper for publication.

How does one go about reading a paper efficiently? The following are a few pointers to optimize your reading time.

Read the abstract and any keywords first.

The abstract will give you an overview of the key points of the paper. Most importantly it will give you an indication of whether you should continue on and read the rest of the paper.

Check out the introduction.

If you are tight for time, focus on the last paragraph – it usually summarises the main points of the paper’s findings. The introduction is mostly background and if you are already familiar with the literature you can scan through this.

Scan the methods.

Don’t get too bogged down in the methods unless you are researching a new product or technique. Unless the paper details a particularly novel method, just scan through. The methods will lead nicely into the results.

Read the results, focusing on the figures.

Read through the figures and figure legends and follow up with the main results text, which will describe the results in more detail if required.

Tackle the discussion.

The discussion can be a repeat of the introduction but will also compare the work of the paper to that previously published. It is worth spending more time on the discussion as it moulds the results of the paper into a story and helps you visualise where they fit in with the overall picture.

A useful exercise in training oneself in reading a scientific paper is to black out the abstract, read the paper and then write an abstract. Then compare the paper’s abstract to the one you wrote. This will demonstrate whether or not you are picking up the most important point and take home message of the paper.

Do you have any tips for reading a paper?

2 Comments

  1. Kurt Lager on November 21, 2013 at 6:09 am

    Methods can often be important, to judge whether to even trust the results!

  2. Kurt Lager on November 21, 2013 at 6:07 am

    The most important is to save all articles that possibly can be interesting in your reference managing system, and classify them with a relevant tag, so that they can be easily found later. Many articles you don’t realize how important they might be until later on. Then you’ll need to find that article you only read the abstract of six months earlier.

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