#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.
Top tips for reading a research paper
When reading scientific research papers it is important to consider the following
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 research paper
Following the steps below will help you get the most from reading the paper.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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