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.
But let’s face it, in our results-driven world reading new scientific papers often falls by the wayside because we just don’t have the time! The answer? Learn to read a scientific paper efficiently, so you can make the most of your literature reading time.
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.
Step 1: Read the Abstract
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. The abstract is often able to view before purchasing or downloading an article, so it can save time and money to read this before committing to the full paper.
Step 2: Skip the Introduction
The introduction is mostly background and if you are already familiar with the literature you can scan through or even skip this as you probably know it all anyway. You can always come back to the introduction if you have time after reading the meatier parts of the paper.
Step 3: 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. However, don’t completely ignore the methods section, as the methods used will help you determine the validity of the results.
Step 4: Focus on the Figures
If you are looking to read a scientific paper efficiently, the results section is where you should really spend the majority of your time. This is because the results are the meat of the paper, without which the paper has no purpose.
How you “read” the results is important because while the text is good to read, it is just a description of the results by the author. The author may say that the protein expression levels changed significantly, but you need to look at the results and confirm the change really was significant.
While we hope that authors don’t exaggerate their results, it can be easy to manipulate figures to make them seem more astonishing than they are. We’d also hope that this sort of thing would be picked up during editorial review, but peer review can be a flawed process!
Some key things to look for when reviewing figures include:
- appropriate scales on graphs
- valid statistical analysis
- sufficient n numbers
- appropriate controls.
Don’t forget any supplementary figures and tables. Just because they are supplementary doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Often some of the most important (but not exciting) results are found here.
We’re not advocating you avoid reading the text of the results section, you certainly should. Just don’t take the authors’ word as gospel. The saying “a picture speaks a thousand words” really is true, your job is to make sure they match what the author is saying.
Step 5: Tackle the discussion
The discussion is a great place to determine if you’ve actually understood the results and the overall message of the paper. It is worth spending more time on the discussion than the introduction as it molds the results of the paper into a story and helps you visualize where they fit in with the overall picture. You should again be wary of authors overinflating the importance of their work, and use your own judgment to determine if their assertions about what they’ve shown match yours.
A useful exercise in training yourself in reading a scientific paper (when you have the time!) 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.
Step 6: File it Away
Spending a little time filing your read papers away now can save you A LOT of time in the future (e.g. when writing your own papers or thesis). Use a reference management system and ensure that the entry includes:
- the full and correct citation
- a very brief summary of the article
- any appropriate tags.
Do you have any tips for reading a scientific paper efficiently?
For more tips on keeping track of the scientific literature, head over to the Bitesize Bio Managing the Scientific Literature Hub.
Originally published November 20, 2013. Updated and revised January 20, 2020.