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 - August 5, 2015 - Updated April 5, 2021  3 mins
Infographic tips article

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.

You can use ScienceDirect’s recommendations service to find other articles related to the work you’re reading. Once you've registered, the recommendations engine uses an adaptive algorithm to understand your research interests. It can then find related content from our database of more than 3,800 journals and over 37,000 book titles. The more frequently you sign in, the better it gets to know you, and the more relevant the recommendations you'll receive.

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.


    Related resources

  • Elsevier Researcher Academy Free e-learning modules developed by global experts; career guidance and advice; research news on our blog.
  • 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.

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Natalia Rodriguez
Written by

Natalia Rodriguez

Written by

Natalia Rodriguez

Natalia Rodriguez 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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