When I worked in technical services for a well-known biotech company, I have to confess that we often used a certain phrase in the frustration of dealing with calls from angry scientists ranting about a problem they were having with a kit because, as it turned out, they didn’t read the manual.
“Read the F***ing manual” (RTFM), was the phrase (only used after we put the phone down of course). A bit naughty, but it was certainly an essential stress reliever! This article today is not about reading manuals, but research papers.
It is my appeal to everyone to RTFP.
I find that there is a growing problem, especially among newer members of the scientific community, of people reading ahead to the conclusions of the paper and taking them as fact without having read the methods and results sections, or critically analyzing the data. This is very poor practice for many reasons but the main point is that just because the article was accepted by the journal you should not assume that the work was reviewed stringently, carried out correctly, or reported objectively.
The conclusions contain the take-home message of the paper but these other sections are just as, if not more, important. Here’s what you should look out for in each section.
The introduction builds the story and explains what previous research has shown and what this new research will add to the current knowledge base. This section helps you to determine if the authors did a thorough review of the field, and if it’s your field, you (should) know whether the authors left out any particular papers that are important to cite. If key papers are left out of the introduction, how careful were they with the rest of the paper?
The methods section should clearly and thoroughly outline exactly what was done. Read it carefully. Are the controls described? Did they modify commercial kits, and if so do they explain how? Are they doing the right comparisons? Did they include enough data points?
If the data is qPCR, then take the time to look even more carefully. According to the MIQE guidelines, the authors need to explain the nucleic acid purification method, yields, and purities, which kits they used, how they determined the efficiency of their assays, and how many replicates they did. There are a lot of factors that can influence qPCR data and if the paper is leaving out some of the information, you can’t make accurate conclusions on the data.
Here is the part where the authors interpret their data. Each figure is reviewed one by one. Read this part critically. How do the controls look? How do the qPCR curves look? Are the Westerns clean? Are all the data in graphs and tables instead of allowing you to see how they actually look? You do these experiments too and you know how data should look. The quality of the data is as important as what experiments they did.
Here is where the authors have the chance to pontificate on their work and tell you what they think it means. They are making their conclusions based on the results. Now, if you have read the whole paper, you are in a position to either agree or disagree. Do you agree with how they interpreted the data? Can you think of alternative explanations for their results? Are they being objective? You’ve looked at the results and you’ve reviewed their methods. What do you think?
As scientists, we all have our theories and we want our data to fit our model. We want to be right. Sometimes the need to be right overrides accuracy. It is human nature. I once had a PI tell me “If you want to prove me wrong, go find another lab”. The data didn’t fit his model and he wasn’t open to changing it, which was bad news.
The message in this article today is to please read your papers. Please, please do not just read the conclusions and take them as truth. They aren’t always the only explanation – you may not actually agree. Besides, critical review of scientific papers is a necessary skill and will serve you well, not only as a future reviewer of journal articles, but as a writer of your own research.
Let us know in the comments – do you RTFP?
For more tips on keeping track of the scientific literature, head over to the Bitesize Bio Managing the Scientific Literature Hub.