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The art of reading a scientific paper

By Charine Collins, Postdoctoral Researcher, SAEON Egagasini Node
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Reading a scientific paper requires a reader to wear two thinking caps - a critical thinking cap and a creative thinking cap

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SAEON’s Egagasini Node initiated regular paper discussion sessions for all the oceanography postgraduates forming part of the node

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Postdoctoral researcher Charine Collins discusses a scientific paper

Reading and understanding research papers can be a daunting task, but it is a skill that every scientist has to learn. Sadly, it is a skill seldom taught at tertiary level.

Even undergraduate science students are expected to use scientific literature for projects and assignments, but this is never proceeded by a “How to” lecture.

Scientists read scientific papers for various reasons - to stay up to date with the latest developments, to find evidence to support or their own ideas, broaden their avenues of research, gain background information on a topic and determine how other scientists conducted their research.

The reason for reading a scientific paper should determine how the paper is read. The abstract and introduction along with your own research needs can be used to determine whether to just skim through the paper or whether you should read the paper more thoroughly.

Regardless of whether you just skim through the paper or whether comprehensive reading is required, the ultimate goal of reading a scientific paper is to fully understand the scientific contributions the authors are making to their field of research. Therefore, reading a scientific paper is completely different from reading a novel or even reading a popular science article in a science magazine such as New Scientist.

Reading a scientific paper requires a reader to wear two thinking caps - a critical thinking cap and a creative thinking cap. Many an inexperienced reader will read a scientific paper in a linear fashion starting with the abstract. The abstract contains a succinct summary of the entire paper, and by starting with the abstract a reader runs the risk of being inadvertently biased by the author’s interpretation of the results. Therefore, it is recommended that the abstract should be the last part of the paper to be read.

The following steps are guidelines on how to read a paper more critically:

Step 1: Consider the article as a whole

The first step is to examine the scientific paper as a whole. Try to establish the purpose and content of the paper as well as the audience it was written for. Some specific questions to guide you through this step are:

  • What are the major ideas that are being addressed in the article?
  • Who are the authors? Are the authors’ affiliations credible?
  • Is the article published in a reputable journal?

Step 2: Skim read the article

The second step is to skim through the paper to identify the problem that the field of research within which the paper falls is trying to address; in other words what is the “Big Picture”. It is essential to identify and look up any unfamiliar terms, techniques and key concepts. It will be difficult to fully understand scientific papers if there are key terms and concepts that you do not understand.

Step 3: Re-read the article

After the “Big Picture” has been identified and all unfamiliar terms, techniques and key concepts have been looked up, a second read through the article is warranted. This should be a dedicated, focused, distraction-free attempt aimed at understanding the details of the article.

When reading the different sections of the paper, starting at the introduction, try answering the following questions:

  • Introduction:
    • What is the purpose of the article? Is it a review of previous studies or does the article present new results?
    • What topic is being researched and why is it an interesting topic?
    • What is already known about the topic?
    • Where are the gaps and how does this article fill these gaps?
    • What are the specific questions/hypotheses addressed?
  • Methods:
    • What research techniques are used and how do they compare to other techniques?
    • Is the method employed appropriate?
    • Has any variable been overlooked?
    • What assumptions were made?
  • Results:
    • What do the figures and tables show? Scrutinise the figures and tables before reading the author’s interpretations of the results.
    • How do the results relate to the questions/hypotheses presented in the introduction?
    • Are the results reported and analysed in an unbiased manner?
    • Are there other ways of interpreting the data presented?
  • Discussion:
    • Have the appropriate interpretations been made?
    • Are there ways of interpreting the results that have not been considered?
    • Is the evaluation of the findings unbiased?
    • What are the implications of the findings?
    • What suggestions are being made about future research efforts on this topic?

Step 4: Criticism and evaluation of article

The final step is to criticise and evaluate the article. While it is important to note the shortcomings of the research and the way in which it is presented, it is also important to take note of the strengths of the paper.

Some questions to help you evaluate a paper are:

  • Was anything left unfinished? Did the author raise any questions/make points that were left orphaned?
  • Did the paper make its case convincingly?
  • What does the point made by the authors’ argument mean in terms of the larger context of the discipline?
  • Is the organisation of the article clear?
  • Were there any problems with grammar, sentence structure/word usage?
  • What did you learn?

And on a more positive note:

  • What good ideas were presented in the paper?
  • What are the possible applications of these ideas?
  • What improvements would you have made?
  • Is there anything in the paper, be it writing style, methods used, graphics, that you can use for your own research?

The guidelines provided here can serve a double purpose. Firstly, they can help you improve your critical reading skills. In the beginning, following the steps provided might be a lengthy process, but with practice, reading scientific papers can become as straightforward as reading more conventional material.

Secondly, appreciating how academics write and why they write the way they do may help you improve your own writing.

Critical reading in action

In 2015, Dr Juliet Hermes of the SAEON Egagasini Node initiated regular paper discussion sessions for all the oceanography postgraduates forming part of the node. During the course of the year, each student got the opportunity to present a critical analysis of a scientific paper relevant to their project or of general interest to the group, resulting in one to two paper discussion sessions per month between 12 postgraduates.

Due to the extensive collaboration network of the node we have been able to invite well-established scientists from SAEON, the University of Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Department of Environmental Affairs and, on occasion, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to present their work to the students or to provide feedback on their papers presented by students.

This year, we are hoping to build on last year’s success with more students joining the group and more frequent paper discussion sessions.

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