Honours Life Sciences, Class of 2021, McMaster University
Reading peer-reviewed articles is a fundamental skill that is at the core of learning about and participating in science. It is the primary method by which the community keeps up-to-date with new findings and ideas. It can sometimes be intimidating to read a scientific paper, especially in an unfamiliar field filled with jargon. However, having a general understanding of the structure of these papers and a strategy with which to analyze them can help you overcome this barrier. Everyone has their own personalized method of dissecting a paper – I wanted to share with you my approach here so that it can help inform your own way.
Reading peer-reviewed articles should not be done top-to-bottom like you would for a novel or a news article. Instead, you should aim to build a scaffold of understanding by skimming the article and then fill in the details as you dive further. The first step is to read the title and the abstract to decide if the article is relevant to whatever you are interested in. Resist the temptation to feel discouraged or to get bogged down in details if you do not understand everything that is being said – the title and abstract are by design the most dense parts of the paper. Instead, focus on picking up on key words and phrases that are mentioned, and let them sit in your mind as you move on.
If you feel at least somewhat confident in the main idea the paper is trying to convey at this point, take a quick glance at each figure in the article. Otherwise, read the ‘Introduction’ section from start to finish. The introduction is the most easily accessible part of the paper and explains its reasoning and context. Pay special attention to the last paragraph of the introduction, as it usually contains the main question and hypothesis of the paper. Make note of this main idea and keep referring back to it as you read the rest of the article.
If after reading the introduction you feel that you do not have even a loose grasp of what it is trying to say, it may be helpful to build up some general knowledge concerning your topic of interest. Use whatever resources that are easily digestible and that you are comfortable with, including YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, or short passages from a textbook. All you are trying to do at this stage is to get familiar with some key ideas and terminology and then quickly return to reading the paper. Avoid the temptation to wander off and get lost – keep your focus on trying to get to a minimum of understanding which enables you to comprehend the introduction of the paper.
Once you feel comfortable moving past the introduction, take a moment to imagine how you would conduct the research if you were the author. It is important to actively engage with the article in this way to get the most out of your understanding. After a moment of thought, return to the abstract and give it another read. You may find that your understanding has improved and that you can already better see the connections between the ideas. Then, skip the text of the ‘Methods’ and ‘Results’ sections and jump straight to the figures. The most important parts of the paper are always depicted in its figures, so give each of them a quick glance now and try to get a feel for what the authors believe to be most important information that they felt had to be displayed. Pay special attention to the first figure, as usually it is either an explanation for the approach that the research took, or the most fundamental results that were found. Try to interpret what is being said by looking at the pictures alone, and then consult the figure caption to fill in the gaps. If reading the caption does not help, then find the relevant part in the ‘Results’ (or sometimes in the ‘Methods’) section by using the search function (ctrl+F or cmd+F) and typing in “Fig. 1” or “Figure 1”, and read the explanation there. Once you have a good understanding, move onto the next figure. For each figure, note what the figure is trying to show and for what purpose the authors decided to feature that information in a figure. I rarely read the ‘Results’ section from top-to-bottom, preferring to keep my focus on the figures and only jumping to the relevant spots in the text when I need to clarify my understanding of each figure.
If you have successfully understood the figures, then it is safe to say that you understand the majority of the paper. Move on to reading the ‘Discussion’ section, which helps place the paper in the context of its field. The first paragraph of the discussion is often a reiteration of the main ideas of the paper, which can help solidify your understanding of the main message. Then the discussion may examine how the study compares to the existing literature, acknowledge the limitations of the study, and suggest possible future directions.
At this point, I would consider reading the ‘Methods’ section briefly to fill in some details of how the experiments were conducted. I would also return to the abstract and read it again to recap the whole paper. It feels satisfying to return to the abstract and find that my understanding of the article has considerably changed from the first time I read the abstract.
Make sure to think critically as you read the paper. Even if you are unfamiliar with the field, take the time to question whether you think the data was collected and analyzed in a way that makes sense. Remember that science is a human endeavor and is inherently subject to biases. Just because the paper passed peer-review does not mean that it is immune to flaws – thinking about how the research could be conducted more effectively or differently will enrich your understanding and help you become a better scientist.
Lastly, talking to someone who is knowledgeable or experienced in the field is an invaluable resource. If you are ever having trouble understanding a paper, or are interested in learning more about a topic, we here at the McMaster Brain Research Society would be happy to help you out and learn together! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and get in touch!