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Taking Notes from Research Reading
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If you take notes efficiently, you can read with more understanding and also save time and frustration when you come to write your paper. These are three main principles
1. Know what kind of ideas you need to record
Focus your approach to the topic before you start detailed research. Then you will read with a purpose in mind, and you will be able to sort out relevant ideas.
- First, review the commonly known facts about your topic, and also become aware of the range of thinking and opinions on it. Review your class notes and textbook and browse in an encyclopaedia or other reference work.
- Try making a preliminary list of the subtopics you would expect to find in your reading. These will guide your attention and may come in handy as labels for notes.
- Choose a component or angle that interests you, perhaps one on which there is already some controversy. Now formulate your research question. It should allow for reasoning as well as gathering of information—not just what the proto-Iroquoians ate, for instance, but how valid the evidence is for early introduction of corn. You may even want to jot down a tentative thesis statement as a preliminary answer to your question. (See Using Thesis Statements .)
- Then you will know what to look for in your research reading: facts and theories that help answer your question, and other people’s opinions about whether specific answers are good ones.
2. Don’t write down too much
Your essay must be an expression of your own thinking, not a patchwork of borrowed ideas. Plan therefore to invest your research time in understanding your sources and integrating them into your own thinking. Your note cards or note sheets will record only ideas that are relevant to your focus on the topic; and they will mostly summarize rather than quote.
- Copy out exact words only when the ideas are memorably phrased or surprisingly expressed—when you might use them as actual quotations in your essay.
- Otherwise, compress ideas in your own words . Paraphrasing word by word is a waste of time. Choose the most important ideas and write them down as labels or headings. Then fill in with a few subpoints that explain or exemplify.
- Don’t depend on underlining and highlighting. Find your own words for notes in the margin (or on “sticky” notes).
3. Label your notes intelligently
Whether you use cards or pages for note-taking, take notes in a way that allows for later use.
- Save bother later by developing the habit of recording bibliographic information in a master list when you begin looking at each source (don’t forget to note book and journal information on photocopies). Then you can quickly identify each note by the author’s name and page number; when you refer to sources in the essay you can fill in details of publication easily from your master list. Keep a format guide handy (see Documentation Formats ).
- Try as far as possible to put notes on separate cards or sheets. This will let you label the topic of each note. Not only will that keep your notetaking focussed, but it will also allow for grouping and synthesizing of ideas later. It is especially satisfying to shuffle notes and see how the conjunctions create new ideas—yours.
- Leave lots of space in your notes for comments of your own—questions and reactions as you read, second thoughts and cross-references when you look back at what you’ve written. These comments can become a virtual first draft of your paper.
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May 9th, 2016
How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists.
90 comments | 1618 shares
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
My post, The truth about vaccinations: Your physician knows more than the University of Google sparked a very lively discussion, with comments from several people trying to persuade me (and the other readers) that their paper disproved everything that I’d been saying. While I encourage you to go read the comments and contribute your own, here I want to focus on the much larger issue that this debate raised: what constitutes scientific authority?
It’s not just a fun academic problem. Getting the science wrong has very real consequences. For example, when a community doesn’t vaccinate children because they’re afraid of “toxins” and think that prayer (or diet, exercise, and “clean living”) is enough to prevent infection, outbreaks happen .
“Be skeptical. But when you get proof, accept proof.” –Michael Specter
What constitutes enough proof? Obviously everyone has a different answer to that question. But to form a truly educated opinion on a scientific subject, you need to become familiar with current research in that field. And to do that, you have to read the “primary research literature” (often just called “the literature”). You might have tried to read scientific papers before and been frustrated by the dense, stilted writing and the unfamiliar jargon. I remember feeling this way! Reading and understanding research papers is a skill which every single doctor and scientist has had to learn during graduate school. You can learn it too, but like any skill it takes patience and practice.
I want to help people become more scientifically literate, so I wrote this guide for how a layperson can approach reading and understanding a scientific research paper. It’s appropriate for someone who has no background whatsoever in science or medicine, and based on the assumption that he or she is doing this for the purpose of getting a basic understanding of a paper and deciding whether or not it’s a reputable study.
The type of scientific paper I’m discussing here is referred to as a primary research article . It’s a peer-reviewed report of new research on a specific question (or questions). Another useful type of publication is a review article . Review articles are also peer-reviewed, and don’t present new information, but summarize multiple primary research articles, to give a sense of the consensus, debates, and unanswered questions within a field. (I’m not going to say much more about them here, but be cautious about which review articles you read. Remember that they are only a snapshot of the research at the time they are published. A review article on, say, genome-wide association studies from 2001 is not going to be very informative in 2013. So much research has been done in the intervening years that the field has changed considerably).
Before you begin: some general advice
Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process than reading an article about science in a blog or newspaper. Not only do you read the sections in a different order than they’re presented, but you also have to take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go look up other papers for some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first. Be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience.
Most primary research papers will be divided into the following sections: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions/Interpretations/Discussion. The order will depend on which journal it’s published in. Some journals have additional files (called Supplementary Online Information) which contain important details of the research, but are published online instead of in the article itself (make sure you don’t skip these files).
Before you begin reading, take note of the authors and their institutional affiliations. Some institutions (e.g. University of Texas) are well-respected; others (e.g. the Discovery Institute ) may appear to be legitimate research institutions but are actually agenda-driven. Tip: g oogle “Discovery Institute” to see why you don’t want to use it as a scientific authority on evolutionary theory.
Also take note of the journal in which it’s published. Reputable (biomedical) journals will be indexed by Pubmed . [EDIT: Several people have reminded me that non-biomedical journals won’t be on Pubmed, and they’re absolutely correct! (thanks for catching that, I apologize for being sloppy here). Check out Web of Science for a more complete index of science journals. And please feel free to share other resources in the comments!] Beware of questionable journals .
As you read, write down every single word that you don’t understand. You’re going to have to look them all up (yes, every one. I know it’s a total pain. But you won’t understand the paper if you don’t understand the vocabulary. Scientific words have extremely precise meanings).
Step-by-step instructions for reading a primary research article
1. Begin by reading the introduction, not the abstract.
The abstract is that dense first paragraph at the very beginning of a paper. In fact, that’s often the only part of a paper that many non-scientists read when they’re trying to build a scientific argument. (This is a terrible practice—don’t do it.). When I’m choosing papers to read, I decide what’s relevant to my interests based on a combination of the title and abstract. But when I’ve got a collection of papers assembled for deep reading, I always read the abstract last. I do this because abstracts contain a succinct summary of the entire paper, and I’m concerned about inadvertently becoming biased by the authors’ interpretation of the results.
2. Identify the BIG QUESTION.
Not “What is this paper about”, but “What problem is this entire field trying to solve?”
This helps you focus on why this research is being done. Look closely for evidence of agenda-motivated research.
3. Summarize the background in five sentences or less.
Here are some questions to guide you:
What work has been done before in this field to answer the BIG QUESTION? What are the limitations of that work? What, according to the authors, needs to be done next?
The five sentences part is a little arbitrary, but it forces you to be concise and really think about the context of this research. You need to be able to explain why this research has been done in order to understand it.
4. Identify the SPECIFIC QUESTION(S)
What exactly are the authors trying to answer with their research? There may be multiple questions, or just one. Write them down. If it’s the kind of research that tests one or more null hypotheses, identify it/them.
Not sure what a null hypothesis is? Go read this , then go back to my last post and read one of the papers that I linked to (like this one ) and try to identify the null hypotheses in it. Keep in mind that not every paper will test a null hypothesis.
5. Identify the approach
What are the authors going to do to answer the SPECIFIC QUESTION(S)?
6. Now read the methods section. Draw a diagram for each experiment, showing exactly what the authors did.
I mean literally draw it. Include as much detail as you need to fully understand the work. As an example, here is what I drew to sort out the methods for a paper I read today ( Battaglia et al. 2013: “The first peopling of South America: New evidence from Y-chromosome haplogroup Q” ). This is much less detail than you’d probably need, because it’s a paper in my specialty and I use these methods all the time. But if you were reading this, and didn’t happen to know what “process data with reduced-median method using Network” means, you’d need to look that up.
Image credit: author
You don’t need to understand the methods in enough detail to replicate the experiment—that’s something reviewers have to do—but you’re not ready to move on to the results until you can explain the basics of the methods to someone else.
7. Read the results section. Write one or more paragraphs to summarize the results for each experiment, each figure, and each table. Don’t yet try to decide what the results mean , just write down what they are.
You’ll find that, particularly in good papers, the majority of the results are summarized in the figures and tables. Pay careful attention to them! You may also need to go to the Supplementary Online Information file to find some of the results.
It is at this point where difficulties can arise if statistical tests are employed in the paper and you don’t have enough of a background to understand them. I can’t teach you stats in this post, but here , here , and here are some basic resources to help you. I STRONGLY advise you to become familiar with them.
Things to pay attention to in the results section:
- Any time the words “significant” or “non-significant” are used. These have precise statistical meanings. Read more about this here .
- If there are graphs, do they have error bars on them? For certain types of studies, a lack of confidence intervals is a major red flag.
- The sample size. Has the study been conducted on 10, or 10,000 people? (For some research purposes, a sample size of 10 is sufficient, but for most studies larger is better).
8. Do the results answer the SPECIFIC QUESTION(S)? What do you think they mean?
Don’t move on until you have thought about this. It’s okay to change your mind in light of the authors’ interpretation—in fact you probably will if you’re still a beginner at this kind of analysis—but it’s a really good habit to start forming your own interpretations before you read those of others.
9. Read the conclusion/discussion/Interpretation section.
What do the authors think the results mean? Do you agree with them? Can you come up with any alternative way of interpreting them? Do the authors identify any weaknesses in their own study? Do you see any that the authors missed? (Don’t assume they’re infallible!) What do they propose to do as a next step? Do you agree with that?
10. Now, go back to the beginning and read the abstract.
Does it match what the authors said in the paper? Does it fit with your interpretation of the paper?
11. FINAL STEP: (Don’t neglect doing this) What do other researchers say about this paper?
Who are the (acknowledged or self-proclaimed) experts in this particular field? Do they have criticisms of the study that you haven’t thought of, or do they generally support it?
Here’s a place where I do recommend you use google! But do it last, so you are better prepared to think critically about what other people say.
(12. This step may be optional for you, depending on why you’re reading a particular paper. But for me, it’s critical! I go through the “Literature cited” section to see what other papers the authors cited. This allows me to better identify the important papers in a particular field, see if the authors cited my own papers (KIDDING!….mostly), and find sources of useful ideas or techniques.)
UPDATE: If you would like to see an example of how to read a science paper using this framework, you can find one here .
I gratefully acknowledge Professors José Bonner and Bill Saxton for teaching me how to critically read and analyze scientific papers using this method. I’m honored to have the chance to pass along what they taught me.
I’ve written a shorter version of this guide for teachers to hand out to their classes. If you’d like a PDF, shoot me an email: jenniferraff (at) utexas (dot) edu. For further comments and additional questions on this guide, please see the Comments Section on the original post .
This piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.
Featured image credit: Scientists in a laboratory of the University of La Rioja by Urcomunicacion (Wikimedia CC BY3.0)
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the Author
Jennifer Raff (Indiana University—dual Ph.D. in genetics and bioanthropology) is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Kansas, director and Principal Investigator of the KU Laboratory of Human Population Genomics, and assistant director of KU’s Laboratory of Biological Anthropology. She is also a research affiliate with the University of Texas anthropological genetics laboratory. She is keenly interested in public outreach and scientific literacy, writing about topics in science and pseudoscience for her blog ( violentmetaphors.com ), the Huffington Post , and for the Social Evolution Forum .
About the author
Very good Indeed.I always Read Abstract First Time always ……Thanks
Great information and guide to reading and understanding scientific paper. However, there are non-scientific student asked to do scientific research and it would be great to actually give an example and you point out the answers to the steps in the sample article or journal cited. Thank you.
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I can summarize it eve further: three stars by a number in a table = good, no stars = bad
within the context of the fact that a very sizable portion of scientific papers are falsified, what does this article mean?
Your “fact” needs explanation and evidence, otherwise it can be considered alternative.
That’s why you don’t skip step 11
I think it would be useful also to point out that, even after diligently pursuing all of these excellent steps, the reader is usually still unable to determine whether the subjects or materials even existed. Unlike with lay media, where most important stories are covered by multiple sources, and where facts are sometimes checkable from primary sources – even by readers – it is rare indeed that a reader can go beyond the words on the page.
Is the fact that you read instructions on how to read a paper not evidence that there is something wrong with the way we write papers?
The issue of scientific literacy is always challenging for my students. But this is the most practical and helpful guide I’ve ever seen on the web, thanks for this. I usually share with my students the following tips already mentioned above: – Learn the vocabulary before reading – Summarize the background in five sentences or less – Identify the BIG QUESTION
But the pieces of advice this guide gives are structured better and easier. I especially love this one: Don’t yet try to decide what the results mean, just write down what they are. Thanks again for writing this piece!
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you left out ask for the data, so you can check for yourself… (ie trust but verify)
an example a psychology paper that surveyed a group of people about conspiracy theories (n=137) and it’s main/only novel finding was that people that believed in conspiracies theories, there was a tendency for people to believe in mutually contradictory conspiracy theories. ie individual could believe that Princess Diana faked her own death, whilst at the same time had been murdered by MI5
The paper, was duly called – Dead and Alive – M Wood et al…
However. after requesting the data. there was not a single individual person that ticked the survey boxes, that simultaneously believed this finding. Not one person.
The problem, most people surveyed did not believe either of those conspiracies, and inappropriate stats method was applied to data, that assumed a non skewed dataset. Thus, not believing in A and not believing in B correlated, but it also gave a ‘result that believing in A, and Believing in B also correlated..
A very dumb paper… Author still hasn’t retracted it yet.
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I love this! Great simmered-down resource for my undergrads- both science and non-science majors. Thanks for sharing!
“Web of Science” link is broken (at least for me) but a useable alternative is webofknowledge.com (same resource, different name).
I think it is important to note that the journal in which a paper is published is no proof as to the rigor of that paper. A listing in PubMed does not guarantee quality; thus, you need to focus on teaching people how to interpret the paper without relying on a simple JTASS approach to initial assessment. This may be a guide, but nothing more. I say this as a former editor of a MEDLINE journal. There can be good papers in bad journals and bad papers in good ones. But you are correct. Key questions are: What is the question? How will we answer the question? What answer did we get? Did we use the right tools to answer the question? What do we think it means? What else could we do? And thus we can train people to watch for sleights of hand, such as shifting primary outcomes, data mining, salami slicing, etc.
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Yikes! This is a lot of work just to read a single paper! It’s almost the same as writing a paper! I understand the logic in why you recommend this, but the average person is going to be willing to spend 20-30 minutes reading and trying to learn. This method calls for multiple hours of effort and I just don’t seem many non-scientist people being willing to do that when they’re more curious than actually invested. I was really hoping this entry was going to make it easier to navigate the foreign and confusing world that these papers represent, and it probably will if someone does this process repeatedly for quite some time…..like a scientist…..but most of us aren’t scientists and don’t have that kind of time to dedicate to something that’s not our work or family.
By tradition, we expect our scientists to report their findings by codifying them in unreadable gobbledygook. Then we write instructions on how to decode that unreadable nonsense!!
We need to encourage papers to be written in everyday language so it is easier for all. Problem solved.
I wholeheartedly agree with Kaveh Bazargan. From personal experience as a non-scientist trying to do this with medical research papers is a very intimidating and isolating experience. Most people don’t have the time spare to even try to learn this skill. It would be great if systematic reviewers who are acknowledged experts in reading and analysing papers could find a way of communicating the important information about individual papers to non-scientists before – or instead of – burying them in systematic reviews and meta-analyses which are even more difficult to understand. Structured plain language summaries of primary research would be very helpful rather than individuals having to teach themselves how to read and understand a scientific paper which is written for other scientists in “unreadable goggledygook”. Many (most?) papers conceal methodogical flaws in the research conduct which are almost impossible to spot without years of scientific training.
I love this! Extraordinary cooled off assets for my students both science and non-science majors. A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing!
Regarding step 11, if you have access to Web of Science I recommend looking up how many citations the paper has (this will also vary depending on the age of the paper) and who cites it, and whether there even any replies to it in the peer-reviewed literature.
Do you literally do this for every paper you read? I’m curious how much time it takes you to go from start to finish on what you would consider a typical paper. How often do you read new articles a week?
This post has the laudable goal of helping nonscientists understand the primary literature, but the recommendations seem even more onerous than they have to be. For example, the idea that one should write down every single word that he/she doesn’t know? That sounds more like a task for a scientist scrutinizing the work of a rival. For a nonscientist, there may be dozens and dozens of unknown words, and chasing down the meaning of each one may cause a serious forest/trees problem. I agree that there’s no substitute for the hard work of digging into a paper, but following the prescribed advice to the letter would be utterly exhausting for almost any lay reader. I base these comments on my experiences as a biology researcher and undergraduate instructor.
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I really like your post and the effort, but much of the problem wouldn’t exist if we, academics, did a better job in writing down the correct conclusions. Researcher degrees of freedom are seldom properly understood and we keep on having the tendency to be overdeterministic about statistics that are not intended as such. Of course we want to communicate in black and white about our tests (significance!) because it is a human tendency to persuade the reader. Most of the research probably is not as inconsistent as it first seems but we forget to report the proper statistics to see so (CI around the ES)
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Thank you very much for sharing a guide that will help me to follow the best standards for writing a scientific paper even I am not a scientist.
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Reading the abstract last is one, not the, way to read a paper. It it biases the naive reader, then they are not reviewing with a level of skepticism required to evaluate science. We put abstracts first because they lay out the problem, overview the sample and design, and tersely describe what they think they discovered. Then, as I read, I have a roadmap in my head of what to look for to determine for myself whether or not they found something noteworthy.
What is the problem? Are hypotheses to be tested likely to illuminate/clarify the problem? Is the sample appropriate for testing and was it sampled without imputing bias? Were measures appropriate and do they have a history of validity? We the analytics applied appropriate for testing at the level of power needed give the sample size? [Here even many scientist are ill-equipped to judge.] After enumerating results, do the authors list weaknesses in their design that might suggest replication is necessary? If not, check for snow – as in snowjob. If significance levelsare low or variables correlate with one another too much, are moderators discussed? [e.g., results hold for males but not females, old vs young, fat vs skinny, etc.). If so, why were data not re-analyzed to control for moderator effects on results?
Lastly, if the word “prove” appears anywhere in the paper, assume it is junk science (like fake news). Research is never ever done to prove anything. Research is only done to find out. Once a preponderance of studies report a similar finding looking at the same problem with different people, measures, designs, and statistical analyses, then you have something like proof; consensus.
Lastly, if you are a conspiracy theory believer, you will disbelieve any scientific study that does not support your word view. Keep this in mind. A few studies that run counter to the prevailing consensus is not PROOF that your conspiracy is correct, and mainstream science is wrong. I do not know a single scientist (and I know thousands globally) who do not consider climate change to be well-evidenced. Similarly, evolutionary theory remains useful – our current understanding of genomic medicine hinges on cellular mutation, which is evolution on a microscopic scale.
This is a very useful set of instructions, but I found the following statement highly amusing: “Before you begin reading, take note of the authors and their institutional affiliations. Some institutions (e.g. University of Texas) are well-respected; others (e.g. the Discovery Institute) may appear to be legitimate research institutions but are actually agenda-driven.”
All research institutions are agenda driven (including my alma mater, the University of Texas), because funding and professional advancement depend on results. Researchers are fallible humans and subject to temptation and error. There is a very big lawsuit pending against Duke University (see below) for falsifying data.
When I read any research (especially medical), I now search for evidence of legal or professional action. So you might add that as #12: “Lawsuits? Retractions?” Caveat lector.
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Weird advice, like: ‘I always read the abstract last’ . This is advice for referees, not for general readers. I always read the abstract first.
An abstract can be misleading, but I am often not qualified enough to judge that. Actually, this blog post title and abstract are misleading too: your advice is for referees, not for non-scientists. So you wanted to provide an immersive experience into a misleading piece, well done 😉
First thing, get rid of the word proof. This is a huge error in that even if you have reputable scientists, journals, institutions, etc. that what is published, especially in a single article, is anything resembling a fact. It is merely research findings from one instance and in no way forms a fact. This is the next level of misinterpretation of science, even among those able to comprehend the journal article, that science produces or discovers facts. There is nothing that is factual that we know of.
For the mid-term exam in a graduate class I took in experimental design the professor would select half a dozen articles from the peer reviewed literature, tell her students to pick three and explain what they had done wrong. New articles for every class and she never ran out.
Beware of articles published in inappropriate journals, no matter how respectable (E.g., something about sociology or criminology published in a medical journal). This is a strategy for sneaking agenda driven research past the peer review process by going to a journal whose reviewers are likely to be unfamiliar with the subject while the editors are sympathetic to the agenda.
There is a reason research papers are written in what looks like “scientific gobbledygook” to lay persons. They are not intended for a lay audience and the goal is to be extremely precise with the technical details of what was done and found so other scientists can examine the results and, most important, attempt to replicate them.. There is no way to simplify the language and put it in lay terms without losing the precision required for a scientific study. E.g., a particle physicist may give a lay explanation of an experiment in metaphorical terms of little balls of energy smashing into each other, but their peers are going to want to see the pages and pages of mathematics that really describe what was happening.
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I would add “Check the source of funding for the research.” If paper on the safety of glyphosate is funded by Bayer or Monsanto, or a paper on climactic change is funded by Exxon, read no further.
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Get the dissertation writing service students look for these days with the prime focus being creating a well researched and lively content on any topic.
The non-scientist should pay extra attention towards this article for the non-technical writing and understanding for them.
A lot of a researcher’s work includes perusing research papers, regardless of whether it’s to remain progressive in their field, propel their logical comprehension, survey compositions, or assemble data for a task proposition or concede application. Since logical articles are not the same as different writings, similar to books or daily paper stories, they ought to be perused in an unexpected way.
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Thanks, I’ll use this a lot for my MSc Thesis.
Those are some great tips but please don’t forget that each school has its own requirements to academic papers.
Clarifying your methodology for reading science paper: excellent idea and great information. Thanks a lot!
Thanks for sharing this blog. Its very helpful for me and I bookmarked this for future
Excelente trabajo, original. Lo recomendaré para mis estudiantes de Posgrado. Si no hay problema, me gustaría hacer una traducción al castellano para el uso de mis estudiantes de pregrado de Sociología.
Excellent work,original. I will recommend it for my graduate students. If there is no problem, I would like to make a translation into Spanish for the use of my undergraduate Sociology students.
Hi Luis, all our works are CC licensed so you are more than welcome to make a translation provided you link back to the original source. See here for details: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en_GB
Great information , it is very helpful thanks for sharing the blog .
Step 1 and 10 is a great idea, but I still think it’s possible to read the abstract with the introduction and still keep an open mind? and shouldn’t they keep their results for the interpretation section? sorry new to reading scientific papers
Step 1 and 10 is a great idea, but I still think it’s possible to read the abstract with the introduction and still keep an open mind? and shouldn’t they keep their results for the interpretation section? sorry new to reading scientific papers
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Thank you for sharing the tips, they were very helpful.
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The article is extremely helpful. Considering that scientific research are not as easy, the tips in the article are great.
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Thank you for posting this. It has really helped a lot, especially for those of us who always read the abstract first haha
Thanks for writing this blog. It is very much informative and at the same time useful for me
Yeah, great advice on how to be objective from someone who openly declares their prejudice in the opening statement.
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Do you in a real sense do this for each paper you read? I’m interested what amount of time it requires for you to go beginning to end on what you would think about an average paper. How frequently do you read new articles seven days?
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That is literally my question too, I see it as quite time consuming to conduct such a lengthy process for all scientific articles we come across especially as one has other responsibilities to give attention too
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There is a reason research papers are written in what looks like “scientific gobbledygook” to lay persons. They are not intended for a lay audience and the goal is to be extremely precise with the technical details of what was done and found so other scientists can examine the results and, most important, attempt o replicate them.
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Thanks for posting this. You are doing a service to the general public and also graduate students by not only posting this but answering all sincere questions. I have a Ph. D. in Zoology and have been a peer-reviewer for at least 12 papers and am first author of three peer-reviewed papers. I have taught statistics in two universities as a contract professor and all of my papers rely on use of statistics. To answer a frequently asked question, yes, personally it can take me a couple of hours or several more to read some papers. This is true for my colleagues as well. Scientific papers are written so as to be as concise as possible and this can make them hard to read. They often also use technical terms which one has to look up. At least biology and statistics. nothing I have read (or written) has been in “goobledygook” or purposely incomprehensible jargon but they do use terms and concepts that are probably unfamiliar to the layman. I think what the author means, by her comment on absstracts can be intepreted as “don’t JUST read the abstract. Be sure to read the introduction. Personally I go to the discussion and conclusion next.
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#GradHacks: A guide to reading research papers
Reading scientific research papers can be a tricky task. It is important to ensure you not only understand the research, but to read it critically and evaluate its reliability. Here is some advice to help you efficiently read, understand and critically evaluate scientific research articles.
Most research papers follow a similar structure and contain the following sections; abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion. Some articles will contain all of these sections and others will contain some of them.
This provides a high-level summary of what was researched and what the findings were.
The introduction gives context to the research by giving information about the field and previous related research that led to this paper. It explains the purpose of the research, what is already known about the topic, the hypotheses that are being tested and how the study will help improve current understanding of the topic. It often includes brief descriptions of key phrases or concepts. Sometimes the introduction includes information about how the research will improve current understanding. However, this is often saved for the discussion and/or conclusion.
Explains how the data was collected and analysed, including how the experiments were set up and what sample, equipment and techniques were used. The statistical techniques are also explained here.
Presents the findings of the research, without bias or interpretation.
The discussion summarises the results. Here, the results are interpreted and their significance is explained. It refers back to the introduction and explains how the study answered the research question(s).
Summarises the key points and findings of the research, the significance of the findings to the field and what the authors believe should be researched in the future based on their findings.
1. Pay attention to the title
The title should tell you the main purpose of the paper. It is also good to look at the authors and their affiliations, which could be important for various reasons, including: for future reference, future employment, for guidance and for checking if the research is reliable.
2. Read critically
When reading a research article, don’t assume that the authors are correct. Instead, keep asking questions along the way, such as ‘is this the right way to answer this question?’, ‘did they do the right statistical analysis?’ and ‘why did they come to that conclusion?’. Taking sample size and statistical significance into consideration is important too.
3. Make notes as you go
Make notes in whatever way suits you best. It can be helpful to print the paper and make notes on it. Alternatively, a greener option is to make notes digitally.
5 tools to help you go paperless
4. read it multiple times.
Research papers contain so much information that it will require you to read it many times before you can fully understand it. Get an understanding of the general purpose of the research and the overall results first, then delve into the finer details once you already have a basic understanding.
5. Read references
Reading some of the references will help you gain background knowledge about the field of research and an understanding of what has been investigated previously.
6. Discuss the paper with someone else
Discussing the paper with someone from your lab or a different lab will show how much you understood and whether you could get more information from it if you read it again. It also helps to reinforce your memory and consolidate what you have learnt.
Steps for reading a paper
1. check the publish date.
Knowing when the research was published helps you have an understanding of whether these are the most recent findings and how likely it is that further studies have taken place since.
2. Skim all of the sections of the paper
Make notes as you do this and look up the meanings of any words you aren’t sure of. A handy tip is to use ctrl F on the keyboard to search for the first time an acronym is mentioned if you come across it later on in a paper, as this is where it will be defined.
3. Read the introduction
Read this in detail to gain some background information on the topic, including what researchers have previously done in this area and why the researchers decided to do this study. Spend longer on this if you are unfamiliar with the topic.
Also, read some of the references included in the introduction if you want to know more.
4. Identify how this paper fits in with the field
What’s the big question that the field is trying to solve? This will help you to understand the impact of the work and why it was done.
5. Read the discussion
This section will give you an understanding of the findings of the paper. You may find it helpful to write notes on the main findings and write down any questions you have, so you can find out the answers when you read the rest of the paper.
6. Read the abstract
To get an overview of the paper. The abstract usually summarises the overall reasons for conducting the study, how the topic was investigated, major findings and a summary of the interpretations/conclusion of these findings. This is a good way to get a summary of the study before reading about it in more detail.
7. Look through the results and methods sections
The methods section can often be the most technical part of the paper. You will likely need to go over this section multiple times to be able to fully get to grips with the procedures and the results.
It is important to take into consideration the following factors when reading the results and methods sections:
- Sample size
- Statistical significance
Again, look up any terms you don’t understand and make a note of them.
8. Write a succinct summary of the research
To check your understanding, write a short summary of the research. This will also help if you are going to write about the paper later in an essay, dissertation, thesis or literature review. Use the following questions as prompts:
- What is the research investigating?
- Why did the research investigate this?
- What was found?
- Are the findings unusual or do they support other research in the field?
- What are the implications of the results?
- What experiments could be carried out to answer any further questions?
Do you have any other tips for reading and critically evaluating research papers? Let us know by leaving a comment!
Banner image paper reference:
Seeman, S., Campagnola, L., Davoudian, P., Hoggarth, A., Hage, T., Bosma-Moody, A., Baker, C., Lee, J., Mihalas, S., Teeter, C., Ko, A., Ojemann, J., Gwinn, R., Silbergold, D., Cobbs, C., Phillips, J., Lein, E., Murphy, G., Koch, C., Zeng, H., and Jarky, T. Sparse recurrent excitatory connectivity in the microcircuit of the adult mouse and human cortex. eLife (2018) doi: 10.7554/eLife.37349
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Taking Notes While Reading
Do you ever copy down pages of notes while reading but still struggle to remember what you read? Alternatively, do you read through texts without taking notes and while only half paying attention? Perhaps you highlight or underline your texts but feel like maybe you’re not getting the most from your reading. If you fall into one of these categories, chances are good that you’re not getting the most out of your reading. This handout discusses the importance of taking good notes while reading and provides several different strategies and formats you can try.
The importance of good notes
Taking good notes while reading is an important part of academic success in college. Most courses require significant reading, and it can be difficult to understand and master the material and do well in class without solid note taking and reading skills.
Good notes from your reading can help you:
- organize your ideas and information from the text
- keep focused and stay engaged while reading
- keep a record of what you read so you can more easily locate it in the future
- think critically about what you read while you read
- draw conclusions and identify main ideas of the text
- be prepared for class and build a foundation for lecture
- have solid materials to use to study for exams or prepare for assignments
How to take good notes while reading
Good notes can take different forms and may vary from person to person—or even from text to text. One of the key ideas of good note taking is that it is not necessary to copy down loads of information from the text. Copying down information does not engage your brain and is not a strong strategy for learning and remembering content. It also takes a lot of time and energy. In contrast, simply highlighting loads of information is simpler but does not do much to actively engage the brain. Instead of copying down tons of notes or over-highlighting, try some of the active and effective strategies and formats listed below. These will help you decrease the amount of time and energy you spend on notes and increase your comprehension and retention from reading.
Different formats/strategies for notes
There is no one right way to take notes while reading. The important thing is that you experiment with a few effective strategies, find some that work for you, and use them. You may find that different formats or strategies work better for different types of texts, too, and you may want to use different ones for different classes. Below are some examples to try:
- Students often miss the opportunity to digest the information from their texts because they’re too busy worrying about taking good notes—instead of actually comprehending the content, they’re thinking more about what they should write down.
- Try reading short sections of your reading (likely a paragraph or two or up to a page) and pausing to think about what you just read—then take notes from your memory of what you just read. This will help you focus on the main points instead of getting caught up in details.
- It’s okay to not remember 100% of what you just read; focus on the main points, and then refer back to the text to fill in details as needed.
- This method may take slightly longer, but many students say it’s worth it due to the increase in reading comprehension.
- Check out our Taking Notes While Reading video for more tips on how to make your notes more efficient and effective.
Mark directly on the text
- If you have a print version that allows it, simply use a pen or pencil. For online texts, some digital programs also allow annotating, highlighting, and commenting.
- Underline, circle, or highlight key words and phrases—this can be helpful for students who need to do something with their hands to help them stay focused.
- Annotate margins with symbols, abbreviations, or summaries of the text in your own words. See our annotating handout for more explanation.
- If you have an online text, you can still record your thoughts, key words, and summaries in this way. Just grab a plain sheet of paper, label it with the text and chapter/page number, and jot them down on the paper instead of in the book.
Cornell style notes
- Divide a piece of paper into three sections—approximately two inches blank at the bottom, and the top portion divided into a one-third section on the left and a two-third section on the right.
- Take notes on the right two-thirds of the page.
- List key words or questions in the left column.
- Summarize the entire page in the space at the bottom.
- Learn more by reading a more detailed explanation of Cornell style notes, or try out of these MS Word templates .
App-based notes (EverNote and OneNote)
- EverNote is a popular notetaking app that can sync notes on all your devices. You can organize notes into individual “notebooks” relevant to different classes or topics. Its fans find it useful for general note-taking and class notes as well as for daily tasks and organization.
- OneNote is an app that comes with Microsoft Office, which is free for UNC students! If you have not downloaded it yet, you can download OneNote here . Much like EverNote, OneNote allows you to sync your notes and access them on any device. You can annotate notes, clip and save multimedia content, and record audio notes.
Create a graphic organizer or concept map
- This method is good for texts that have a lot of higher level concepts that require explanations or texts that have remember-level facts, dates, terms, etc.
- Organize information visually.
- Differentiate main ideas from support in an appropriate format: concept map, table, flow chart, hierarchy, timeline, or Venn diagram.
- Good for texts that have a lot of visuals, timelines, etc. like science or history.
- Generate Your Own Q&A or Study Guide.
- Formulate questions from headings and keywords before you begin. Then seek answers as you read
- Are you studying for test a that will require a lot of visual identification? Consider creating your own Pinterest board to organize image-based notes.
- Write notes in your own words instead of copying down information from the book.
- Avoid over-highlighting. Highlighting doesn’t do much to actively engage the brain, so it’s not the most useful strategy. Also, highlighting too much can keep you from focusing on the main ideas. For tips on highlighting more thoughtfully, see the strategies on our highlighting handout .
- Wait until the end of a page to take notes so that you can better focus on what you are reading and so that you can try to summarize in your own words rather than copy.
- You don’t need to write pages of notes—keep them brief and focused.
- Preview the chapter before you start reading by looking at the text features to gain clues about the main ideas of the chapter.
- Focus on the main ideas and concepts.
While taking good notes when reading is important and will go a long way, it’s also helpful to utilize other UNC resources—not just for note taking and reading, but also for any academic area. Check out some of these resources to provide supplemental support:
Academic Coaching : Make an appointment with an academic coach to talk one-on-one about note-taking—and any other academic concern. Office Hours : Make an appointment with your professor or TA to talk about note-taking for his/her specific class/text. Related Learning Center handouts : Many of our handouts go into further detail about reading. Check out some of these for additional strategies:
- Annotating Texts
- Increasing Reading Comprehension
- Reading Textbooks
“Concept Mapping.” Cornell University. Retrieved from http://lsc.cornell.edu/concept-maps/ .
“The Cornell Note-taking System.” Cornell University. Retrieved from http://lsc.cornell.edu/notes.html .
“Effective Reading and Note Taking.” MIT. Retrieved from http://uaap.mit.edu/tutoring-support/study-tips/tooling-and-studying/tooling-and-studying-effective-reading-and-note-taking.
“Reading a Textbook for True Understanding.” Cornell College. Retrieved from https://www.cornellcollege.edu/student-success-center/academic-support/study-tips/reading-textbooks.shtml
“Reading Note Taking Strategies.” UNSW Sydney. Retrieved from https://student.unsw.edu.au/notemaking-written-text
If you enjoy using our handouts, we appreciate contributions of acknowledgement.
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- Reading Scientific Papers
Understanding and Analyzing Empirical Articles
Understanding scientific papers, reading as a process, step 1: preview the scientific paper, introduction, step 3: reflect and take notes.
The first step to reading more critically and efficiently is to understand the structure of the source you’re reading. Thankfully, scientific papers, a.k.a. articles, typically follow a standard format that you may already be familiar with from writing lab reports—both are based on the scientific method and typically contain the following four sections: The introduction is where the authors present their research question and explain their hypotheses and predictions. The methods section details how they conducted the study and analyzed the data, and the results section summarizes the key findings. Finally, scientific papers end with a discussion where the authors interpret the results, explain whether they support the hypothesis, and relate the study to the broader field of research. This common structure helps scientists better communicate their research with one another and the larger public—armed with an understanding of this structure, you’ll now be able to better understand and analyze scientific research.
You likely think of reading as a one-step event: you pick up a book or article and read it. Experts on reading, however, suggest that a multi-step process can make you a more efficient and critical reader.
Step 1: Preview the source to get a sense of what it will offer
Step 2: Read for understanding and analysis
Step 3: Reflect and takes notes on the reading
Keep in mind that how you accomplish each of these steps will differ depending on what kind of source you are reading. The remainder of this guide details how to approach each step when reading scientific papers.
Before you begin to read a scientific paper, consider how it relates to the course, your experiment, or your research project. Next, preview the source itself to determine its main goal, method, and findings. Your first step should be to read the abstract, which provides a brief summary of the paper . As you read, ask
- WHAT did the authors want to find out?
- WHY did they want to know this?
- HOW did they answer the question?
- WHAT did they find out?
- SO WHAT? Why is this research important?
Keep in mind that reading the abstract alone will not provide you with an understanding of the source. You must read the article in full, section by section: the next portion of this guide will help you focus your reading to both understand what the author is trying to say and to analyze and evaluate the source.
Step 2: Read for Understanding and Analysis
Each section of a scientific paper is carefully organized to present information in an expected format—as you become familiar with this standard structure, you’ll be able to easily locate the specific information you seek. Use the following descriptions and guiding questions to navigate each section as you read. You may also want to use our Template for Taking Notes on Scientific Papers to organize your notes after you read each section.
A careful reading of the introduction is essential to understanding the reasons for and goals of a scientific study. In this section, authors provide an overview of the general topic, summarizing background information from the existing literature. The authors explain how their research adds to current knowledge and convey its importance. The introduction is also where you’ll find the research question(s) and expected answer(s)—in scientific papers, these answers come in the form of hypotheses and predictions (to learn more about these, check out our guide to Understanding Hypotheses and Predictions . Introductions often conclude with a brief summary of how the authors tested their hypotheses—a preview of the methods section.
Questions to Check Your Understanding
- What is the research question?
- Why should it be studied (what gap does this research fill)?
- How has it been studied before?
- What are the hypotheses and predictions?
Questions to Guide Your Analysis & Evaluation
- Is the question clear?
- How does the work compare to other studies in the field?
- Will this research contribute to our knowledge in an important way?
- Is the hypothesis justified?
In the methods section, the authors provide a detailed account of how they completed their study or experiment, the materials and/or participants they used, how they measured particular variables, and how they analyzed their data. As a reader, you will want to pay careful attention to this section and determine the strengths and weaknesses of the study’s design.
- How did the authors conduct the study or experiment?
- What materials and measures did they use?
- How did they sample the study area, subjects, or population?
- How did they analyze the collected data?
- Are the measures appropriate and clearly related to the research question? Do they adequately test the hypothesis?
- Does the sampling (e.g., study areas, subjects, participants) fairly represent the larger population of the study?
- Is the analysis appropriate for the data?
- Are there noticeable flaws in the method?
The results section summarizes the data in text, figures, and tables. As a careful reader, you should examine this section and consider not only what the authors found but also what findings they chose to present and how (for example, which results warranted display in a figure? which didn’t?).
- What are the major findings?
- How are the findings presented/displayed?
- Are enough data displayed to demonstrate the results?
- How do the findings relate to the hypotheses?
- Are the statistics appropriately presented?
- Did you note patterns that the author does not mention?
In this section, the authors analyze their findings and explain whether their results support their hypotheses and predictions. The authors explain why (or why not) by comparing not only their results but also their approach to those of other related studies, providing essential context and grounding their work in the existing literature. They also discuss the limitations, importance, and implications of their results and detail possible applications, extensions, or revisions of their study.
- Did the data support the hypothesis?
- If not, does the author explain why?
- How do the results compare to those of other studies?
- Are the findings significant?
- What are the limitations and applications?
- Did the authors interpret the results appropriately?
- Are you persuaded by the findings?
- How significant are the limitations of the study?
- Do the authors offer plausible applications for their research?
- Does the discussion reflect the major points from the introduction?
Taking notes while you read is time consuming and can even distract you from focusing on the ideas you are reading. Instead, separate the acts of reading and notetaking by reading a section or a few pages and then stopping to take notes. Make sure that your notes provide answers to the questions posed in each of the sections above. Again, you may want to use our Template for Taking Notes on Scientific Papers to organize your notes as you go.
After you have read and taken notes on the paper, be sure to reflect on it. How does it compare to other papers you’ve read on this topic? How does it relate to your experiment or research project? How might you use it in your course work, lab report, or paper?
How To Guides
- Transition to University - Advice for First Year
- Level Up: Resources for Upper-Year Students
- How Do I Protect My Academic Integrity?
- Reading in the Humanities and Social Sciences
- Reading Textbooks
- Lectures, Listening & Notetaking
- Notetaking Templates
- Prepare for and Write Exams
- New Term. New Habits.
- How to Learn Online
- How to Manage Your Time
- How to Write in University
- How to Succeed in Math and Science
- How to Use Sources
- How to Edit Your Writing
- Academic Skills Online Resources Index
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