How to Read Any* Scientific Paper

*But primarily those in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

One’s first encounter with a scientific paper can be intimidating and even a bit scary.

I remember my first time. When I first began working on planet formation, my research advisor invited me to participate in the group’s biweekly journal clubs. Advanced undergraduate students and Master students alike were invited to present the results of a relevant scientific paper within 15 minutes or less. Since I had indulged in public speaking throughout high school and during my first few years of undergrad, I immediately signed up to be one of the next speakers. It was only 15 minutes – how hard could it be? Little did I know that the more difficult aspect of presenting a journal article was not the public speaking part, it was understanding the article well enough to explain it to a scientifically literate audience.

But don’t fret! The art of effectively reading of scientific literature does have a significant learning curve initially, but the more its done, the easier it becomes.

Here are some techniques that have worked best for me, featuring an example of a recent publication by my summer advisor, Dr. Mario Flock. 🙂

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Titles are typically neglected, as scientific literature is more frequently referred to by the author(s) and year of publication. But the title not only helps identify what the publication is about, but it also should help you, the reader, determine whether its a worthwhile read!

Is there anyone you recognize? It’s good to begin taking note of names and what specific individuals are working on within your field. Who knows, you might run into a few of these names in your next conference. One of them might slip into your interview for a PhD position when you’re already super super nervous. In cases like these, becoming familiar with author names and their work is integral in building and expanding your professional network. You might even get a chance to sit in one of the author’s PhD defense!

Abstracts are like those movie trailers that reveal the entire plot in 2 and a half minutes. It’s that super dense chunk of text at the beginning of every article that somehow manages to condense a 10-25 page paper into 500 words or less. They can be a lot to digest. These paper synopses usually contain four key pieces of information: the motivation of the work (why they did it), the methodology (how they did it), the results (what they found), and a conclusion (what it means).

I highly recommend taking your four favorite highlighters (or four different colored pens) and highlighting the four different sections of the abstract. Once you identify the inspiration for the study, the execution plan, the key findings, and conclusions, the remainder of the paper, which is formatted in the exact same way, will become a lot easier to take in.

And don’t forget about those keywords at the bottom! If the authors could describe the paper in a handful of words, these are the words they would use.

That’s right. The conclusion. Whether you completely forgot that you were supposed to present another article this week, or whether you spent the majority of your day working on beautifying your plots rather than reading the article your advisor wanted you to read before your next meeting which is coincidentally in five minutes, or whether you have all the time in the world and are just an article aficionado, the next thing to read is the conclusion.

Reading the conclusion immediately after the abstract further cements what the paper is about. It summarizes the bulk of the work, presents the most important findings, puts them into context, and sometimes discusses potential future steps. Once you’ve gotten a comprehensive understanding of the subject of the publication, you can now move on to the next step!

The introduction provides extensive background information and the main motivation for pursuing this project. Whilst reading the introduction, don’t be afraid of words or terms you’re not quite familiar with. Instead, look them up! It is likely that the background and motivation of this work will be similar to those of other works in the same field, so it’s best to become acquainted with this material early on!

Typically, this section includes a million references from previous work in the subject, which, if you’re already familiar with other publications, serve as an additional way to place the project into context.

The Methodology section of a publication is usually the most difficult portion to understand, especially if the article involves a niche subject, a ton of technical terminology, or is heavy on the theory side. It serves as a very detailed instruction manual on the project and includes all the specialized techniques that were used. But don’t worry. When you’re just starting out, this section is okay to skim. 🙂 At the same time, this section is useful in case you would like to replicate the results or follow a similar routine to obtain your own results.

Now, let’s move on to the Results. This section of the publication provides the data the authors deemed useful to obtain their conclusions. Similar to the Methodology, the results can be quite dense and may be difficult to understand for the beginning reader.

Numeric results are often presented in graphics, plots, or even tables in an intuitive manner for (relatively) easy interpretation. In every publication, there are typically one or two “money-figures” so take some time to identify these as they are the most important results and contain most of the study’s findings. Once you’ve done so, focus on deciphering what quantities are represented in the figures by taking note of the axes, legends, and figure captions.

The Discussion section of any publication is where the author attempts to piece the puzzle together. Instead of simply presenting the data like in the Results section, here the author will explain what their results mean, the significance of their findings, and how these findings support their conclusion.

It’s important to keep in mind that the discussion section is primarily the author’s interpretation of the results. It’s O.K. to draw your own conclusions!

As this section may include future steps in much more detail, its the perfect place to identify yet unanswered questions in the field and which avenues are yet to be explored. Who knows, one of these “prospective future works” might turn into your next research project. 😉

You’re almost there! Now that you’ve read through the majority of the work, revisit the conclusions section. Reread this section and ask yourself whether these concluding remarks are adequately supported by the rest of the paper. Also, do these conclusions correspond to your own conclusions of the work? And more importantly, what are the implications of these findings?

Whoo, you did it! You read a scientific paper! (Sorry to all ya non-n00bs out there.) If you’ve followed these steps and still have zero clue what the paper you’re reading is about, that’s alright! Scientific papers sometimes require multiple reads. Not only that, but every blooming scientist has their own way of approaching publications. A way that might work for me might not work for someone else. I hope that these techniques at the minimum lead you in the right direction, and that you apply the ones that best work for you. 🙂

Have any additional tips? Comment them down below!

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