If you are in academia, you have to deal with scientific papers to understand the topic no matter at what stage. Scientific articles are the key element of becoming familiar with current research in that field. And based on the available literature, you have to distinguish between good and bad interpretations of research by reading and analyzing primary literature. This may sound easy; however, reading and understanding research papers is a complex skill that every person interested in research/academia has had to learn during the bachelor or master’s degree. This article will explain the fundamental ideas of how to read scientific papers more productively by not spending too much time on unnecessary information.
How to read scientific papers – Beginner’s guide
First of all, reading a scientific article is an entirely different process from reading articles about science in a newspaper, social media, blog, etc. Because, when you read a scientific article, you don’t only get simple information, but you take notes, read some parts several times, compare with other papers that you have read before or diving into details to understand deeply. Therefore, sometimes this process can be prolonged and time-consuming depending on the weight and length of the article. The good news is that once you gain experience reading the scientific papers, the process goes much faster next time.
When you start your research, you first address the current literature and publications in peer-reviewed journals. I would like to put more emphasis on peer-reviewed journals due to their nature and requirements. Most journals require a complex literature review and analysis, applicable methodology, and outcomes of the research. Therefore, most scientific articles consist of several elements: abstract, introduction, literature review, methods, results, and conclusions/interpretations/discussions.
I will divide the reading process into four levels.
SKIM (reading article quickly)
You don’t need always to read every article in your field. First of all, physically, it is impossible. Secondly, you can’t manage your time effectively if you try to read and understand everything. Instead, you have to focus on your demands and expectation from that field. So, first get the “big picture” by carefully reading the title, keywords, and abstract to find out if this article is relevant to your research. Usually, authors give a brief overview of their study in the abstract; this will tell you the primary focus and findings and why they matter for further discussions/approaches or research.
As the first step of reading, you need to quickly scan the article without taking notes; but focusing on headings and subheadings.
Write down the publishing date because, for many areas, current research is more relevant. While quickly scanning the document, note any terms and parts that you don’t understand immediately. By doing this, you will come back to the same topic later, and it will remember you always to do additional research on specific terms.
Now, you are fully aware of the article, and you have an idea of what the article is about. If you consider this work relevant for your research, you can take your notebook and start to read that article again, but this time more carefully. While reading an article, I recommend you set questions for yourself to find your answers from the article easily:
Re-read the article, asking yourself questions such as:
- What problem is the study trying to solve? – Identify the big question. If you find the paper’s niche, it will help you focus on why this research is being done and how it may contribute to science.
- Are the findings well supported by evidence? – Look closely for evidence of agenda-motivated research.
- Are the findings unique and supported by other work in the field? – This is very important. Your time is priceless, and you don’t want to read the same topics and ideas repeatedly. Therefore, concentrate on provided evidence, how they can contribute to your research, how they may open new directions for you.
- What was the sample size? Is it representative of the larger population?
- Is the study repeatable? What factors might affect the results?
If you are unfamiliar with critical concepts, look for them in the literature. Read the methodology section. Try to find out how authors gathered all their data and evaluated it accordingly. If you understand their methodology, you will easily follow the rest of the article without interruption.
Also, read the results section earlier in your reading process. Because you will find out the article’s summarised results in this section, which will let you decide if the work is vital for your research. Pay careful attention to the figures, tables, and graphs.
Scrutinize graphs and tables. Try to interpret data first before looking at captions. When reading the discussion and results, look for key issues and new findings. Make sure you have distinguished the main points. If not, go over the text again. Determine whether the results answer the research question(s). In fact, you will probably form your own interpretations before and after reading the article; therefore, it is totally fine to change your mind based on reading material. Here you ask several questions for yourself: Do you agree with them? Can you come up with an alternative way of interpreting them? What does the article suggest doing as a next step?
Take notes: it improves reading comprehension and helps you remember key points. This will help you to understand how to read scientific papers again in the future.
If you have a printed version, highlight key points, and write on the article. If it’s on a phone or laptop’s screen, make use of markers and comments. I recommend you create a database for yourself. You can use any tool to create such a database (Google Sheet, Microsoft Excel, Notion, Zotero, Mendeley, etc.) In this way, you can compare your analysis with other papers and visit your reading any time in the future if needed.
I will have a particular article on creating an effective system that will work for you anytime. I will focus on a systematic approach to productivity and how to manage your time more effectively.
Until then, stay tuned!