Infographic: How to read a scientific paper
Mastering this skill can help you excel at research, peer review – and writing your own papers
By Natalia Rodriguez Posted on 5 August 2015
Much of a scientist’s work involves reading research papers, whether it’s to stay up to date in their field, advance their scientific understanding, review manuscripts, or gather information for a project proposal or grant application. Because scientific articles are different from other texts, like novels or newspaper stories, they should be read differently.
Research papers follow the well-known IMRD format — an abstract followed by the Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. They have multiple cross references and tables as well as supplementary material, such as data sets, lab protocols and gene sequences. All those characteristics can make them dense and complex. Being able to effectively understanding them is a matter of practice.
Reading a scientific paper should not be done in a linear way (from beginning to end); instead, it should be done strategically and with a critical mindset, questioning your understanding and the findings. Sometimes you will have to go backwards and forwards, take notes and have multiples tabs opened in your browser.
Here are some tips for reading and understanding research papers.
- Lenny Rhine. “How to Read a Scientific Paper,” Research4Life Training portal[NR1] [AB2]
- Valerie Matarese, PhD (Ed). “Using strategic, critical reading of research papers to teach scientific writing,” Supporting Research Writing: Roles and challenges in multilingual settings,” Chandos Publishing, Elsevier (2012)
- Allen H. Renear, PhD, and Carole L. Palmer, PhD. "Strategic Reading, Ontologies, and the Future of Scientific Publishing," Science (2009).
- Angel Borja, PhD. “11 steps to structuring a science paper editors will take seriously,” Elsevier Connect (June 24, 2014)
- Mary Purugganan, PhD, and Jan Hewitt, PhD. “How to Read a Scientific Article,” Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication, Rice University
- “How to Read and Review a Scientific Journal Article,” Writing Studio, Duke University
- Robert Siegel, PhD. “Reading Scientific Papers,” Stanford University
- Research4Life Training Portal: A platform with free downloadable resources for researchers. The Authorship Skills section contains 10 modules, including how to read and write scientific papers, intellectual property and web bibliography along with hands-on activity workbooks.
- Elsevier Publishing Campus: A free online platform with lectures, interactive training and professional advice on a wide range of topics, from the fundamentals of publishing to broader issues like gender in research and open science.
- Career Advice portal of Elsevier Connect. Stories include tips for publishing in an international journal, how to succeed in a PhD program, and how to make your mark in the world of science.
Elsevier Connect Contributor
Natalia Rodriguez (@rodrigueznats) is the Communications Coordinator for Research4Life, a public-private partnership providing access to scientific information to researchers, academics, students, doctors and other professionals in the developing world. Natalia holds a BSc in biology and an MSc in science communication from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Before joining Research4Life, she worked in the Elsevier's Global Communications department in Amsterdam.
Currently based in Bremen, Germany, Natalia also works as a freelance creative for different organizations, finding innovative ways to communicate science and development.
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