Your Guide to Reading Scientific Papers
Scientific papers, also called research papers or journal articles, are a way for scientists to communicate knowledge publicly. Because researchers often write these papers to share their work with others in that field, they aren’t always easy for non-scientists to understand.
But finding and reading scientific papers is easier than you might think! Part III of our Demystifying Clinical Trials series will teach you how you to find, read, understand, and think critically about scientific papers.
Journals, Articles, and How to Find Them
A journal is a periodical that regularly publishes a collection of scientific articles. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine publishes articles on general medical topics, Nature publishes on general science, the American Journal of Cardiology focuses specifically on cardiology, and many other journals publish on cancer, pediatrics, etc. Many journals require a subscription, but most also provide articles for free after a few months. (For more on the process of how articles are written and accepted for publication, you can read our earlier blog post here.)
The American Association for Cancer Research has a great review of the most common sites to search for journal articles. These sites, along with Google Scholar, allow easy searching by keyword, disease, author, title, or journal. In addition to these sites, many doctors have profile pages on their hospital’s or clinic’s website that include a list of their recent publications. This is often provided as a citation list, which is a standard format listing the author’s names, year of publication, title, journal of publication for each article. Information from the citation can be used to find a paper on one of the common journal article search websites.
Parts of a paper
Newspapers have the same regularly occurring sections in the same order (major news, local, sports, weather, etc.). Similarly, scientific papers also have the same regular sections in the same order to ensure that information is presented consistently across all journals. Most scientific papers have the following sections:
- Title and authors: The general focus of the paper, who wrote it, and where they work
- Abstract: Spoiler alert – this is an executive summary of the entire paper, including the findings and conclusion. Abstracts are always provided for free to help readers determine if they want to keep reading (or possibly pay for) the whole article.
- Introduction/Background: Reviews previous research, why this study was done, and the hypotheses the researchers had before starting.
- Methods: Explains how the research was done. This section includes details on the sample (animals, humans, adults, kids, etc.), size of the sample, new drug or treatment procedures, data collected, and more. The section is very detailed so that other scientists can replicate the study to confirm the findings, and so people know exactly what was done in case there are questions.
- Results: Extremely detailed scientific results. This section presents information on data analysis, technical facts and figures, and usually presents large amounts of statistical results in tables and graphs.
- Discussion/Conclusion: This is the reader-friendly explanation of the results section. It also usually includes discussion of any weaknesses or limitations of the study and ideas for future research.
- References/Bibliography: The citation list of previous research that informed this paper.
Most papers also include tables, graphs, and figures (pictures) to visually share important information. Journal articles are strictly limited to only a few thousand words – and a picture is worth a thousand words! In addition, it’s often easier for readers to see a picture demonstrating something like umbilical cord blood collection than to read several paragraphs and try to imagine the process.
How to Read a Scientific Journal Article
There are three main reasons people read scientific papers: 1) interest in a particular topic, 2) to gain information needed for treating patients, or 3) to inform new scientific research. With so many papers being published in so many places now, even professionals can use tips on how to efficiently read journal articles. The best suggestion comes from Dr. Subramanyam (2013):
The cardinal rule when reading papers is: Never start reading an article from the beginning to the end. It’s better to begin by identifying the conclusions of the study by reading the title and abstract.… After reading the abstract and conclusions, if the reader deems it interesting or useful, then the entire article can be read.
Journal articles are not novels that must be read from start to finish. Start by reading the abstract to get an overview of the sample, what was done in the study, and what the researchers learned at the end. Then, if you want to know more or still have questions, you can read the Introduction and Discussion sections. (The Methods and Results section share extremely technical data that is most useful to other scientists in that field.)
Thinking Critically about Journal Articles
As important as knowing the sections and how to read them is thinking critically about the paper you’re reading. The article may have been peer-reviewed by experts, but there are still important questions to keep in mind.
For instance, think about the sample. How many people did the researchers collect data on? Is the paper reviewing data from thousands of people across multiple countries, or only a few patients from one hospital? Where were they from? When was the data collected (e.g., recently or more than five years ago)? If the topic or condition is rare there will be fewer people available to collect data on, but looking at the sample size is always key when thinking about the bigger picture.
Another question to keep in mind is whether the authors discussed limitations to their study. All research has strengths and weaknesses, and the authors themselves should point out not only what might have hampered their work, but also how future research can resolve the problem. Additionally, most journals require authors to submit financial disclosure statements on how the study was funded and whether or not the authors receive money from an organization that presents a conflict of interest in their work.
The HLHS Program Presents – #ResearchRecap
Finding and reading scientific papers isn’t as overwhelming, or time-consuming, as it used to be. The internet now makes it easy for scientists share their work, and for the public to find and compare results from many different studies. There’s also a new movement among scientists to better communicate their work to the public in ways that are easy to understand. Many researchers now share their work and even answer questions from the public on their social media pages.
The Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for HLHS fully supports this initiative and is excited to announce a new regularly-occurring series – #ResearchRecap! Beginning in September, our blog and social media pages will regularly provide a brief, reader-friendly overview of new scientific papers on HLHS or related congenital heart defects. We’ll try to include papers that are available to read for free, but will always bring you the most recent and most exciting research being published. Stay tuned!
The Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome (HLHS) is a collaborative network of specialists bonded by the vision of finding solutions for individuals affected by congenital heart defects including HLHS. Our specialized team is addressing the various aspects of these defects by using research and clinical strategies ranging from basic science to diagnostic imaging to regenerative therapies. Email us at HLHS@mayo.edu to learn more.