How to Tackle Understanding A Research Paper

Have you ever come across a research paper and been utterly confused at how all the words could be in English, yet make absolutely little sense? A lot of scientific papers can initially be daunting to read. You’ll see a bunch of terms that you may have never even seen before. Take a deep breath. Learning how to read a scientific paper can seem like an insurmountable challenge, however, with the correctly developed strategy, you’ll be able to dissect the difficult terminology and draw important conclusions.

Scientific research papers are often very dense. On average, a paper for a peer-reviewed journal is typically around 8+ pages including appendices and bibliography. Depending on the subject area and number of results, this can easily be 15-20 pages of pure scientific content and terminology. Unlike a textbook, the audience of the scientific paper are professionals who are expected to already have background knowledge on the topic. Therefore, you’ll soon find that terms, concepts and even certain methodologies are not overtly explained by the authors.

Color Coding

You can either print out the entirety of the research paper or download it for viewing and editing on your Ipad. I personally prefer to go the paper-free route (save the earth!), but these techniques are very applicable regardless of the digital or physical format. Color coding is a great twist on conventional highlighting of key points from a passage!

Set aside a color for each of the following concepts or features. For this example, I will just use randomly selected colors.

  • Background/Introduction: Yellow
  • Methodology or Techniques: Blue
  • Results : Purple
  • Key Takeaways or Conclusions: Orange
  • Challenging Word or Concept to Look Up: Green

This will help you to extract the important portions, Just like any other skill, with more practice you will get quicker at discerning what content is most important to focus on.

Reading By Section

Each section of the scientific research paper has a distinct purpose. Determine what you want to learn from the paper and go from there. For example, if you want to just quickly figure out any significant new discoveries or distinctions go straight to the results and then the discussion for it to be put into the context of past literature.

Abstract: Gives you an idea of what the author’s are going to be discussing. This can help you determine if it is related to what you wanted to learn or know about.

Introduction: The author provides you with background information and also with their purpose and intent.

Materials/Methods: Lab techniques and protocols can typically be quickly read over. But, if you have reason to question or look into what techniques were used then read this section as well.

Results: Focus on the figures and graphs along with their descriptions which are typically either in a caption or referred to in the body of the text. These help you to draw out the main points of the data that the authors want to draw attention towards.

Discussion: This section provides the findings in context of other recent or past articles. It gives a good summary of the main takeaways and what questions are left unanswered or for further study.

Join a Journal Club (Formal or Informal)

With Covid-19, more and more people are forming communities online. For example, I am a Neuroscience major so I joined a group on Linkedin where we discuss research articles every week for the duration of summer. I would recommend finding something similar in your field of interest whether it is is on Linkedin, a group of your friends or making your own.

Published by Magda Wojtara

Magda Wojtara is Junior at the LSA Honors College at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor on a pre-med track with a major in Neuroscience. In her free time, she write articles, volunteers at a chronic pain outpatient facility with UM Medicine, does research, competes in HOSA, and, of course, enjoys photography and singing. In her spare time she manages her own travel and lifestyle blog: @journeythedestiantion on instagram and journeythedestination.weebly.com

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