The main way in which scientists communicate their findings with people around the world is through journal articles, but they’re not always the easiest things to read. I spent most of my morning reading lots of science articles, studying up on some really cool stuff. Also this morning I was responding to someone who asked for advice on reading journal articles. I don’t know how helpful my advice was, but I figured other people might hopefully maybe benefit from it, so thought I’d share. 

warning: I’m super exhausted so this post is going to be poorly formatted – but science papers hopefully are not! Speaking of format, these papers tend to have (variations on) a specific format so let’s briefly review what the general layout is before I get to the tips I have on what I find works best for me. This is probably one of the most important things to stress – each person will have their own style that works best for them and the best way to get more comfortable reading papers is to read a lot of them. So, what should you expect when you do?

There are several key components of a scientific paper and here’s a brief overview. The actual layouts of papers and section names differ from journal to journal. But they usually contain these core components…⠀

Abstract – this is like a book’s “blurb” but with major spoilers. It tells the potential reader what the paper’s about – what’s the question they were looking at & why; what did they do to answer it; and what were their key takeaways. Some papers do “graphical abstracts” which, as I’m guessing you could guess – I love! Graphics make me giddy – go figure!⠀

Background – What was known about the topic beforehand? What was missing? Why should we care?⠀

The organization of the rest of it can vary – some put methods here, others put them at the end – and if they’re really detailed, sometimes there are extended methods in the “supplementary information”⠀

Methods – What techniques did you use and how – *specifically* – did you carry them out – details – give us details! The details should allow someone to recreate the experiment. One of the things I hate is that sometimes, for some “methods” authors will say “we did it like X et al.” and then refer you to “X et al.”;s paper which says we did it like “Y et al.” and send you to another paper – and pretty soon you end up at a paper from the 50s that isn’t even available online…⠀

Some papers call it “Materials and Methods” because it often tells you what materials they used & where they bought them from (or how they made them).⠀

Results – What did you find out? This isn’t the place for deep analysis – instead it’s the “show me the data and I’ll decide” portion -it’s meant for presenting the findings, so it usually has the bulk of the figures. You might find figures in the other sections but those figures are probably either to give you an overview of the system being studied & it’s place in the bigger picture of things (in the background section) or a proposed model for what’s going on (in the discussion)

Then it’s discussion time!⠀

Discussion – Here the authors try to tie it all together and fit it into the larger scheme of things. And if there are contradictions between this paper’s findings and other paper’s findings, they can discuss why they think this could be. ⠀

In the discussion and/or conclusion sections, authors also address any outstanding questions (e.g. we still don’t know *how* DNA does it) & propose alternative theories (e.g. the DNA might not be entirely pure and there could be a tiny bit of something else in there tricking us). Authors also must account for shortcomings & gaps in their experiments (often at the request of reviewing editors).

Conclusion – Here the authors try to tie it all together.⠀

Then comes the Bibliography or References or Works Cited part where they list the papers they cited in the article so you can go track them down yourself. ⠀

Papers these days often have “Supplemental Materials” which can include additional figures, data sets, extended methods, etc.⠀

It’s hard to keep up with all the new papers coming out all the time, so I schedule “alerts” from SciAlerts that email me when papers with key words or by certain authors get published so I don’t miss them. I also frequently check the websites of journals that are relevant to me. And I use a website called Meta which collates feeds of articles related to topics you’re interested in. 

Now for the advice…

When it comes to approaching papers you have to think a bit about what your aims are. Broad level understanding vs nitty-gritty etc. Sometimes you can get super sucked into some particular aspect of a paper and trying to interpret a little thing that you waste a bunch of time and/or lose site of the bigger picture. It’s good to try to get a broad overview of the paper – I like to skim through and look briefly at the figures to see what type of experiments they’ve done and what to expect. And I read the subsection headers before diving in

If it’s something important, then I will go in depth and even pull up the supplementals, etc

But the reality is it’s basically impossible to do that for every paper you come across

But if you’re basing your project off of something or citing something, you want to make sure you understand it and the papers conclusions are well-supported by their evidence

I definitely recommend trying to really understand what each figure is saying and why it’s included. Even if you aren’t looking for the nitty-gritty details, negative controls, uncrossed gels, etc. you can find in the supplemental materials, there’s still a reason to check it out. Look in the supplemental to see if there’s a model figure. for some reason, papers tend to relegate this most helpful figure to the supplemental, usually at the very very end, but having that graphic layout of their conclusions will help you see the bigger picture and try to figure out how each piece of evidence fits (or conflicts with) their story

A lot of people skip the intro but I find the jntro really helpful – and the methods (but part of that’s just the geek in me). Methods can definitely be helpful if you’re looking about ideas for your own experiments, but Methods can also be frustrating because of that citing papers that cite papers that cite papers… that I mentioned before. 

The intro often references review articles – if I’m new to the field or topic I tend to try to check out the most recent review article they cite (not that the most recent is always the best but I want to make sure that I’m up-to-date. they’ll often cite the same older one and then that might get me to look up the earlier one too)

I’m not sure if this “advice” is helpful or not but it’s how I approach things. It definitely takes a lot of practice and is acquired skill. And even experts have a hard time reading papers, especially those not in their sub field So don’t feel bad or discouraged if you’re struggling. Some of it is the authors’ fault anyway for not making their points more clear. People seem to think that serious science = dry, boring, dense, and jargonny so scientific papers can be really inaccessible (even when open access!)

if you want to see an example of walking through a journal article: 

and if you want to learn more about types of articles, preprints, open access, etc.: 

Now it’s time for me to get some sleep so I can hit the slot blots in the early morning! 

more on topics mentioned (& others) #366DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉

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