Reading a Scientific Article
Attempting to read a scientific article for the first time may seem overwhelming and confusing. This guide details how to read a scientific article step-by-step. First, you should not approach a scientific article like a textbook— reading from beginning to end of the chapter or book without pause for reflection or criticism. Additionally, it is highly recommended that you highlight and take notes as you move through the article. Taking notes will keep you focused on the task at hand and help you work towards comprehension of the entire article.
1) Skim the article. This should only take you a few minutes. You are not trying to comprehend the entire article at this point, but just get a basic overview. Pay attention to the structure of the article, headings, and figures.
2) Grasp the vocabulary. Begin to go through the article and highlight words and phrases you do not understand. Some words or phrases you may be able to get an understanding from the context in which it is used, but for others you may need the assistance of a medical or scientific dictionary. Free, online medical and scientific dictionaries available through our Library databases as well as on the open web are listed below.
3) Identify the structure of the article and work on your comprehension. Most journals use an IMRD structure: An abstract followed by Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. These sections typically contain conventional features, which you will start to recognize. If you learn to look for these features you will begin to read and comprehend the article more quickly.
• The abstract gives a quick overview of the article. It will usually contain four pieces of information: purpose or rationale of study (why they did it); methodology (how they did it); results (what they found); conclusion (what it means). Begin by reading the abstract to make sure this is what you are looking for and that it will be worth your time and effort.
• The introduction gives background information about the topic and sets out specific questions to be addressed by the authors. You can skim through the introduction if you are already familiar with the paper’s topic.
• The methods section gives technical details of how the experiments were carried out and serves as a “how-to” manual if you wanted to replicate the same experiments as the authors. This is another section you may want to only skim unless you wish to identify the methods used by the researchers or if you intend to replicate the research yourself.
• The results are the meat of the scientific article and contain all of the data from the experiments. You should spend time looking at all the graphs, pictures, and tables as these figures will contain most of the data.
• Lastly, the discussion is the authors’ opportunity to give their opinions. Keep in mind that the discussions are the authors’ interpretations and not necessarily facts. It is still a good place for you to get ideas about what kind of research questions are still unanswered in the field and what types of questions you might want your own research project to tackle. (See the Future Research Section of the Research Process for more information).
4) Reflect on what you have read and draw your own conclusions. As you are reading jot down any questions that come to mind. They may be answered later on in the article or you may have stumbled upon something that the authors did not consider. Here are some examples of questions you may ask yourself as you read:
o Have I taken time to understand all the terminology?
o Am I spending too much time on the less important parts of this article?
o Do I have any reason to question the credibility of this research?
o What specific problem does the research address and why is it important?
o How do these results relate to my research interests or to other works which I have read?
Links to Online Medical & Scientific Dictionaries
Credo Reference: The American Heritage Medical Dictionary
SAGE Research Methods: Dictionary of Statistics & Methodology, Third Edition
MedlinePlus Medical Dictionary
The Science Dictionary
Links to Additional Internet Resources
Anatomy of a Scholarly Article
How to Read (and Understand) a Social Science Journal Article
Purdue University Libraries: How to Read a Scientific Paper Interactive Tutorial
Science Buddies: How to Read a Scientific Paper
YouTube Video: How to Read Scientific Literature
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