Tips for Reading a Scientific Paper

For many students of science, learning how to read scientific papers can pose a challenge in the beginning. With the use of referencing scientific papers in the media, classroom, and on websites, it is vital to be able to read and correctly interpret scientific papers.

Lab notebook

Scientific papers are almost always prefaced with an abstract—a summary of the hypothesis, research, and results. However, some abstracts can be fairly short, may contain a significant amount of scientific jargon, or do not convey the in-depth research done by the paper’s authors.  Some websites also require you to have an account to be able to read the paper’s full text. You may feel overwhelmed, at first, so here are a few tips to help you read and understand a paper from beginning to end.

  1. Give it a quick first read. Using a lab notebook, write down the name of the paper. Be sure to take notes while reading. Use the header words of each different section—for example, Introduction, Conclusion, etc.—so you are able to keep your notes organized.  Quickly skim the paper and write down main themes, theories, research data, and other terms or phrases that stand out.
  2. Create a list of phrases or terms that confuse you. In your laboratory notebook, be sure to create a way to identify unfamiliar and/or confusing terms or phrases. Different sciences may use familiar terms as a completely different meaning. Some sciences use the context of words to explain research that may not make sense in layman’s terms.
  3. Research words you do not understand. Use a scientific dictionary to research unfamiliar terms or phrases. Once you have gathered all of the information in context of the paper, re-read it again carefully. Be sure to compare your new understanding of the paper to your notes. Double check that the notes you have written down in your lab notebook are correctly aligned with the paper’s data. Key elements to look out for are the publishing date, hypothesis, sample size, collection methods, and conclusion(s).
  4. Pay attention to figure details. Many papers include graphs, infographics, and/or tables. It is key to take notes on the figures in the order of which they are mentioned in the paper. It is very important to understand the effects of scaling within the graph(s) to be able to correctly interpret the data. Record the information you learned in your laboratory notebook.
  5. Interpret the data in student scientific notebooks. Use your laboratory research notebook to answer the questions. You may have to go back and read sections several times while comparing your notes to the paper in order to get a better understanding of the subject. Be sure to do independent research on the same or similar studies.
  6. Ask yourself the following questions:

-What is the hypothesis?
-What are the data collection methods?
-What does the data say about the hypothesis?
-What does the conclusion say about the hypothesis?

Scientific notebooks