How to Read a Scientific Paper/Publication

How to Read a Scientific PaperHi guys! Happy Spring!

I’ve been rather busy with work and getting my postdoc projects off the ground, but I’m back with some new posts!

Today I’m bringing you a tips/guide to reading a scientific publication/research article! A little deviation from my usual fashion/lifestyle posts, but I hope this can help, and is a skill you develop during grad school! I didn’t read too many papers before I started grad school, so I wish I had gotten some tips on how to read a paper. My first quarter of grad school consisted of a biochemistry bootcamp course, where every two weeks we had a final exam on a different module. You can say that we were required to read many papers a day/week!

I had a hard time comprehending all the information that was compacted into a scientific paper at first, and its entirely normal to feel overwhelmed, especially when you aren’t a seasoned pro! But, you will learn the skill 1000x over as you progress through your PhD or grad school program!

If you are a seasoned pro/advanced grad student/scientist/professor, leave any tips I might have left out or you want to add in the comments!

I am doing my first journal club next week since starting my postdoc, so this is how I usually read and critically analyze a paper!

Here is an order I suggest you start with:

  1. Quickly skim the abstract to see if this is what you are interested in reading.
    – You shouldn’t feel pressured to understand the entire paper through reading the abstract, but get a clear idea/gist of what the paper is about! If it seems like it will talk about what you are interested in, proceed to read the paper! The abstract also offers a quick overview of the main points and key findings of the paper, so you can get a summary of what was done and found.
  2. Begin by reading the introduction, but don’t be scared off.
    – The introduction can sometimes be a little overwhelming, as it usually begins with a broader overview of the field, and then starts to focus in on the specific project/area, and then describes the details necessary for the basic understanding. This is where you will usually find references to reviews and other papers you can read to better understand any topics discussed that you don’t understand or want to learn more about!
  3. Summarize the background in five sentences or less.
    – What is the important information necessary for you to understand the work? Write down things you want to look up and search for the answers before you move on to the other sections of the paper.
  4. Identify the big overarching question.
    – Usually the last paragraph of the introduction introduces the big question and premises to the study. Write down what the big question is the authors want to answer – and this will help clarify the motivation and help you better understand the paper! Example – are you reading about a protein involved in Alzheimer’s Disease? Is their overall goal to find a cure?
  5. Identify the specific question(s).
    – What are their specific aims/goals to achieve? Are they characterizing the protein of interest and looking for specific mutations? Are they looking for a mechanism?
  6. Identify the approach through the methods section.
    – The methods section can be found in different places – sometimes it comes right after the introduction, sometimes its after the discussion, and sometimes it’s in the supplemental information. Different journals have different formats and sometimes not much detail is given while other times, much more detail is given on how specific methods were done. Here, you don’t have to fully understand the specific details of each assay,  but just a quick overview of what they did – did they use cellular assays? Biochemical assays? In vivo? What did they try to use to answer their questions? This is where you can wikipedia search the different assays to just get a gist of how it works and what kind of information they will get out of the assay.
    – Most of the time people suggest to ignore the methods section or read it last, but I find that if I read thru the results and don’t understand the assay/result graph, I just get lost if I keep reading. So it is ultimately up to you if you want to read the methods section, but I suggest just skimming it over quickly to get a general overview and come back to it last for the finer details.
  7. Read the results section.
    – This is the meat of the paper. What did they really find out? What do the results say? What was the question, and how did they answer it? Again, don’t get wrapped up in the nitty gritty details, but what I usually do is annotate the figures and write the overall conclusion from every panel. For example, for Panel A, what was the result? The mutation of Protein A gave increased levels of activity. In Panel B, testing the mutation from Panel A with X conditions gave this other readout.  That really helps me when coming back to discuss the paper.
    – If you want, you can read the results section after the discussion, as the discussion will usually summarize and discuss the implications of the findings, but I personally like seeing the data first, then discussing the implications.
    – Supplemental information can help you  better understand things as well. I like having the supplemental info opened up or printed out and be able to quickly reference it when it is discussed in the paper. That way I don’t just fly by the supplemental reference in the main text and not know what they are talking about.
  8. Find the importance of the results in the discussion
    – The discussion summarizes the main results and discusses their importance in the greater context of the study. What does the mutation on Protein A having increased levels of activity say in the greater mechanism of the disease? What other information can we garner from this, and what are the future directions? What other questions are there now to explore?

Taking notes for each section and then reviewing them later or reminding yourself before moving on to the next section can really help your overall understanding of the paper.

When actually writing up/doing a presentation for a journal club presentation, this really helps give you the understanding of the paper/study.

For a Journal Club Presentation, I make slides in similar fashion discussing the key points.

  • Introduction slides with background – less text the better, try to find some diagrams. This is where you can read some literature to better understand the field.
  • Slide including the specific aims/key questions the paper aims to discuss/address. This is where you can include the overarching goal as well.
  • Brief summary of the methods. Again, diagrams help a lot, especially if you can make a flow chart of the process to help people fully understand how it all works!
  • Key result panels. I add the speciifc figures and panels that will help in the understanding of the paper. You don’t have to necessarily include every single panel, sometimes there is some additional information put in that supplements the main points.
    • Title of the results slides is a one sentence summary of the finding. That helps orient the audience in the main point of what they will get out of the figure.
  • Summary slide – overall conclusions of the paper
  • Discussion/implications of the findings. What do these results mean in the greater context of the study?
  • Future directions – what assays are they doing next? What do you think they should try next? Do you agree with the findings? How sound are the findings, and what’s important to try next or redo?

What do you think about these tips? Do you have anything else to add? Let me know in the comments below!

Have a great week!





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