5 Tips for Reading Science Papers: Student Edition
On Bio by the Bay, we read scientific papers. Science papers can be long, tedious, opaque, and written in a style with the ostensible purpose to keep the truth hidden from the prying eyes of a layperson. With practice, however, we can begin to follow the very logical set-up of a scientific paper: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (not always in that order). Knowing the organization structure alone is like having a map as you hike into unfamiliar territory. Even if I don’t understand everything in a given sentence, at least I know where I am and what the context is.
That being said, here are five more tips and tools to consider when reading up for your next class report. And if you haven’t discovered this ultra-scientific tool yet, allow me to introduce you to Let Me Google That For You.
1. Skim first, then read in depth.
The first read should be a skim for terms, tools, and techniques you aren’t familiar with. Get an overall feel for what they’re doing and why. Look up terms that might be a clue to the impact of the paper. For example, if it’s about a way to get hydrocarbons from cells, we are talking about biofuels. Looking for insight into the Why of the paper will help you understand its context. Good papers usually tell you a little about their broader impact in the Abstract, Introduction, or Discussion near the end, but sometimes you have to dig a little.
Later reads can be more in depth. The Results section and figures should be examined closely, and especially as you advance, try to avoid the Discussion section until you’ve tried drawing your own conclusions about the data. Consulting the Methods section is most important if you want to replicate the literature or use their techniques in your own experiments. Otherwise, this section can be helpful to shed light on figures you don’t understand or to gain insight into the tricks of your field.
2. The abstract, and avoiding bias.
The first thing to notice in a scientific paper is the abstract. You will hear a lot about how dangerous this little paragraph is. The reason? It is a summary of the entire paper: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. It is all the data wrapped up in a nice, neat little story to tell.
The problem? What if the authors are wrong in their interpretation of the data? By reading the abstract first, you are coloring your biases to see the graphs and figures the way the authors do. It can impede your own critical thinking and interpretation of the data.
On the other hand, the abstract is very convenient for assessing whether the paper is worth your time or not. It takes a while to wade through all the information in the paper, after all. With the abstract, you get the main points and have a reference frame to orient yourself in the subject.
So when it comes to the abstract, you have two options: read it first, or read it last. If you are concerned about bias, read it last. Get your background information from the introduction and skip the abstract until the end. If you are trying to assess the paper’s relevance, are new to the field, or want a quick overview, start with the abstract.
3. Interpret the figures.
The most important information in a paper is in the pictures. Figures, graphs, any representation of data is your key to understanding the entirety of their work. Much of the science paper overviews here on Bio by the Bay quickly devolve into explanations of each successive figure in the paper; it’s just where all the good stuff is.
Make a habit of spending the time to really understand these graphs, how the authors interpret them, and how you would interpret them. Are they basing their conclusions off of scanty evidence, or a clear trend?
4. Draw it out.
After deciding on a paper to write about here, the first thing I do is diagram out the process the authors took. The authors may have a hypothesis, but there is often also an element of discovery in the paper. What is the logical process taken in going from Point A to Point B? What do they do in lab to get there, and how does each experimental result inform the next step?
5. Persistence & experience.
If you just set up a gel in your gen bio lab, running DNA fragments through an electric field, you’ll quickly recognize gel electrophoresis data, and be able to assess the quality of the gel. If you just learned about photosynthesis, you’ll recognize RuBisCo in a biochemistry paper, even if you aren’t sure what the chloroplast chaperonin and auxiliary factors are right away. If you just learned how to do a t-test, you are already better equipped (believe it or not) to understand how the authors crunched their data.
So, patience. As you grow as a student – at the lab bench, in the classroom, and in your data analysis program of choice – you will become better equipped to understand science papers, and also how to draw your own interpretations of the data.
A free account with Science gives you access to complete research papers published at least one year ago. Science papers are short, have a handful of helpful, data-packed figures, and contain info that is super impactful for their fields. Plus you know they’re reputable – unlike the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, which actually published Maziére & Kohler’s “Get me off Your F***ing Email List.” In other words, Science a great place to start practicing. So is Nature, a similarly high-impact journal and usually of a reasonable length.
Also, there are multiple free apps you can use for collecting your science paper PDFs that allow you to highlight, take notes on your computer, and set up references & bibliographies properly. My tool of choice for this is Mendeley; there are others, if you are so inclined.