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Biology 11A Research Project: Reading Scientific Research Papers

Anatomy of a Research Paper

Before jumping into reading your research papers, it is important to understand the different parts of a research paper and what you can expect to see in each section. Understanding how research papers are generally structured will help you know what to expect from each section of the paper and to navigate the paper in a way that will help you read more efficiently. More information about reading a scientific paper can be found in the box to the right entitled, "How to Read a Scientific Paper."

  • Abstract: An abstract offers a brief overview of the paper including why the authors conducted the experiment, how they did it, and what they found. Abstracts can be structured and/or set up in the same manner of the paper and thus offer a summary of what each section of the paper will cover.
  • Introduction: The introduction explains the motivation behind conducting an experiment. This usually includes a discussion of relevant studies (literature review) and knowledge gaps that led to the experiment the paper is about.
  • Methods: The methods section provides more precise information of how the experiment was conducted in a way that also enables others reading the paper to replicate the experiment if desired. This section can be difficult to understand because it contains industry/field jargon and information of specialized techniques.
  • Results: The results section provides the data the authors used to reach a conclusion. You will often see graphs and tables organizing the data in this section, making it easier to understand.
  • Discussion: Discussion, also sometimes called the Analysis or Conclusion is where the authors of the experiment interpret the data, explain what it means in the context of their original intentions for the experiment, and outline their conclusions. 
  • References: References provide a list of resources that the authors of the experiment quotes or used throughout the development of the study. This section is excellent for checking the validity of the authors' sources and may be helpful in locating more resources for your own research.

North Carolina State University Libraries have created an interactive tutorial using the visual of an academic paper that you can also refer to for more information. 

Why Reading Scientific Papers is Important

Up until recently (maybe even this class), you may have never had to read a scholarly, scientific paper. So why do you have to read them now? Scientific papers are incredibly important to the scholarly conversation because 

  • Scientific papers are more current. Maybe you're used to reading textbooks or popular articles to learn more about what's going on in biology, but those textbooks can be out-of-date by the time they're published. Journals are published more consistently (often monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly), and more current information on what's going on in the field.
  • Scientific papers provide detailed information so you can try it yourself. You can verify the research and see if you get the same results.
  • Scientific papers provide detailed data. You can use this data in your own research as well as learn about uncertainties in the experiment, conditions of the experiment, and more.
  • Scientific paper allow you to evaluate the conclusions for yourself. All the detailed information you need including methods, data, and detailed author explanations are provided so you can draw your own conclusions and determine whether you agree with the authors or not without reading about the findings in an article or a textbook that is interpreting the findings for you.

How to Read a Scientific Paper

Before you get Started

When reading scientific papers for your own research purposes, you need to be prepared so you get the most out of reading the papers you'll potentially be using for research. You should have the following ready to go:

  • A Dictionary
    • Because the authors of scholarly articles are generally writing to other people in their field or discipline, you may find the writing to be very formal and very discipline specific. You may want to read these articles with a dictionary.
  • A way of taking notes
    • Whether you choose to use a notebook, annotation software, or notetaking software, be prepared to take notes about your insights and questions as you read these articles.
  • Others in your group or class
    • We learn best by teaching others, so see if a friend in your lab group or class is willing to listen to you give a little talk about your paper including a summary, important insights, and what it means to your research.

How to Read a Scientific Paper

General consensus about reading scientific papers seems to indicate that you should not read scientific papers from beginning to end. Here's a recommendation for the order in which you should read scientific papers from Purdue University's Michael Fosmire's presentation, "How to Read a Scientific Paper," which promises to make for, "faster, more efficient comprehension."

  1. Abstract: Remember, the abstract provides a brief overview of the paper.
    • Questions to ask: What specific results are mentioned? Are the relevant to my research?
  2. Discussion: Sometimes called "Analysis" or "Conclusion," this section summarized the important results and outlines the authors' conclusions. 
    • Questions to ask: Do you agree with the logic of the conclusions? Are those results useful to you?
  3. Introduction: This section explains the motivation and importance of the research. This section also provides background information to give context to the paper you are reading.
    • Questions to ask: Do you understand the background information? Do you need to look up references for more information?
  4. Results: Results provides detailed, raw data from the experiment that you may need for your own research.
    • Questions to ask: For figures, do you understand what the axes mean? What units are used? Does the curve make sense?

As you read in this order, you may be able to rule out papers that are irrelevant to your research and papers that are not understandable to you (and thus not useful) as you ask yourself these evaluating questions. However, if you make it to the end, congratulations! You should find your chosen paper both understandable and relevant to your research.