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How To RTFP (Read the F*****g Paper)

There are, of course, times when it’s ok to just read one part of a paper.  For example, if you only need to know how an experiment was done, just read the methods section or when you simply want what happened, just read the results.   But much of the time this targeted sort of reading will not do.  You need to read the whole paper, as Suzanne discussed in an earlier article.

A checklist can help

A useful tool in training yourself to read the whole paper is a checklist of questions to work through and ask yourself as you read.   This helps you look at all the sections, be critical, and ensure that you aren’t tempted to skip anything!

There are lots of these critical appraisal (the official term for RTFP!) checklists out there. Here are a few examples of books and resources that have them:

  • The book Practical Skills in Biology, by A Jones, R Reed and J Weyers (Harlow, Benjamin Cummings, 4th ed., 2007) contains some great lists to help you read graphs and tables.
  • On the web there is a nice article on How to read a scientific paper, by J.W. Little and R. Parker (2004) from the University of Arizona.
  • Two articles in Advances in Physiology Education contain much more detailed lists:

Rangachari, P. K. and S. Mierson (1995). “A checklist to help students analyze published articles in basic medical sciences.” Advances in Physiology Education 13(1): S21-S25.  Available via http://advan.physiology.org/cgi/content/abstract/268/6/S21.

Seals, D.R. and H. Tanaka (2000) “Manuscript peer review: a helpful checklist for students and novice referees.” Advances in Physiology Education 23(1):  52-58.  Available via http://advan.physiology.org/cgi/content/abstract/23/1/S52.  (not all the questions will be relevant, perhaps)

My checklist

I teach critical appraisal to biological science and medical students at the University of Leicester and have devised my own list of questions, which ask:

  • What the authors set out to prove, and also if they are making any assumptions;
  • How exactly they went about things, and whether there is (in your opinion) anything they could have done differently;
  • What their results were, and what you think they mean;
  • What the authors concluded, and how your conclusions and theirs compare.
  • What else they could have done, and asks if you think they proved what they set out to prove.
  • There is then a final “anything else” question, for recording any other observations.  This is just in case there is anything not covered by the other questions!

My list is available from http://www2.le.ac.uk/Members/khn5/. It is licensed with a Creative Commons licence, so use for non commercial purposes is encouraged (with acknowledgement).   If you like the idea, give it a try.

If you want to share any suggestions for improving or adapting the list, please leave a comment.

This article was written by guest author Keith Nockels, a librarian who teaches critical appraisal to various groups of medicine and biological science students at the University of Leicester, UK.

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