Why you should read scientific journal articles and 7 tips on how to do it

posted in: Education, General science | 2

Introduction:

Scientific journal articles are generally considered to be only for other scientists.  But you don’t have to be a scientist to be science-minded or scientifically literate.  Anyone can benefit from reading science articles.  And, correspondingly, everyone does benefit from anyone reading them.

Still, these articles are written to convey information, not to be entertaining.  So, some different techniques may be necessary for understanding them.  This post provides seven tips for reading, and understanding, scientific journal articles.  These tips are even explained in a friendly comic strip-type infographic.

Why we should all read scientific journals:

Big picture:

Figure from a Scienceosaurus.com article on why scientific journal articles are important showing trepanation in the 1500's. Befoe scientific investigations told us how stupid this (usually) is, it was used to release evil spirits from the skull.
Figure 1: An engraving by Peter Treveris recording trepanation in the 1500’s. Before scientific investigations told us how stupid this (usually) is, it was used to release evil spirits from the skull.  Thank you science!  

All modern advances have been motivated by the collective will and morality of society (cf. Feynman, 1955).  But our willpower alone can’t effect change, and this underlying morality has just one reliable tool for realizing its desires: science (Feynman, 1955; Royal Society, 1985).  Thus, as responsible members of society, it is our responsibility to at least try to understand this great tool of advancement and truth finding.

Scientific literacy also helps us make informed decisions.  It enables policy makers to represent society’s best interests.  It helps us to avoid costly pseudoscience (Figure 1).  It protects our kids and pets.  It improves our interactions with the environment.  And, when the time comes, it will save us from killer asteroids (Vasile and Colombo, 2008) just as it has done with countless microscopic threats to our bodies.

The science is there for you.  It’s waiting.  And it needs you—not in a pathetic, self-loathing pop-star type of way.  It needs you in a sort of boot-strap-pulling, self-respecting, advancing-civilization type of way.

Immediate, personal benefits:

But reading scientific articles has other, more tangible benefits aside from all that big-picture, super-important-to-society stuff.  Brushing up on scientific concepts or new research can directly help you in several ways.  It can relieve you of costly misconceptions.  It can help you develop critical thinking skills and shed unnecessary gullibility.  It can effectively align your worldview with reality.  In fact, science (which is relayed in unfiltered form through journal articles) is the only system that we have for ensuring the most accurate view of reality possible.

7 tips for reading scientific journal articles:

These tips are written in a stepwise fashion and can be used as a single plan of attack.  Or, if you are already somewhat familiar with reading scientific papers, you might still find one or two to be a helpful improvement.  Feel free to pick and choose.

For your entertainment and convenience, Figure 2 depicts all of these tips as a friendly, comic-style infographic.

Scienceosaurous.com infographic on 7 tips for reading a scientific journal article.
Figure 2: Cartoon infographic depicting 7 tips that anyone can use for reading scientific journal articles.  (Each step is elaborated on in the text.)  

1. Don’t get overwhelmed

Don’t get put off by any jargon that you don’t understand.  Just Google unfamiliar words as needed and appreciate the new vocabulary.

Also, remember that the authors likely spent years researching the exact subject of the article in minute detail.  So, don’t worry if their data or insights initially make you feel stupid.  This is natural; give yourself, and the article, a chance.

2. Read the abstract

Abstracts are meant to give you the gist of an article before you dig in to actually read it.  They’re like a summary that’s meant to be read before the actual article.

They should provide a brief synopsis of the relevancy, methods, and conclusions.  So, it’s also helpful to use an abstract to make sure you’re really interested.  It’ll let you gauge whether the article is what you’re interested in and make sure it’s worth your time.

3. Scan it over

Scan the article to get a feel for its layout.  Try to mentally map out how your thoughts will have to evolve with the ideas delivered by the article.  Many journals have slightly unique formatting guidelines that authors need to follow.  So, it’s always a good idea to develop this awareness of the flow of the paper.

Making this mental map is the first step in understanding how the authors get from introduction, to results, to conclusions.  (In a sense, this is the main goal of reading a scientific article.)

4. Check out the figures

Look at all the pretty graphs, plots, and other figures.  Try to understand them as stand-alone graphics.  This is great because you can glean a lot of information on the results and conclusions just by understanding the figures.  And acquainting yourself with this quick information can help the meatier text seem a bit more familiar.

5. Read the paper

Just read it.  (Sorry; you had to do it at some point.)  Don’t get too bogged down with any jargon that might be intimidating.  Instead, force yourself to pay attention.  Try to answer some critical questions, like:

  • What are the research questions? (What is the study meant to reveal?)
  • Does the introduction and background information justify the methods that were used?
  • Do the methods produce appropriate data for answering the research questions?
  • Are the data robust? (Is there enough information to really assess the research questions?)
  • Do the interpretations follow from the data?
  • Are there alternate interpretations that could have been made?
  • Do the conclusions follow from the data and interpretations?

6. Reread it and take notes

Yeah, reread the darn thing.  Force yourself to take a few notes this time.  The margins of the paper, or a single sheet in a notebook are probably sufficient for your notetaking.  Notes should take the form of little reminders.  Mark the ideas that you like and concepts that you aren’t too sure about.

7. Sink it in (force the information into your memory)

Don’t negate all your hard work by just forgetting that newfound information!  Sink it into your cerebrum.  This can be done in several ways.

If possible, talk about the article with some friends or colleagues.  Even if they haven’t read the article, just explaining your own understanding will likely reveal to yourself the main takeaways of the study.  Or, a quick chat can clarify any of your own shortcomings in understanding the work.

After you’ve talked it out (or instead of, if you’re a misanthrope or castaway or break into awkward “glavins” when you talk out loud to other humans), write or type yourself a short outline of the article so that you don’t forget the main points.  Outlining the main points of the article helps sink the information into your memory and preserves your thoughts for referencing later.

Conclusion:

Reading scientific journal articles is super important and useful.  Also, it’s not as difficult as you might think.  It’s something that everyone could, and should be doing.

To help you get started, Scienceosaurus will soon post a new article on how to find scientific journal articles.  Plus, many Scienceosaurus blog posts are written in a similar format to many scientific articles, so reading them can help get you familiarised.

References:

Feynman, R. P. (1955). The value of science. Engineering and Science, 19(3), 13-15. http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/1575/1/Science.pdf

Royal Society (Great Britain) & Bodmer, W. F. (Walter Fred), 1936- & Royal Society (Great Britain). Council (1985). The public understanding of science : report of a Royal Society ad hoc group endorsed by the Council of the Royal Society. The Royal Society, London. https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/1985/10700.pdf

Vasile, M., & Colombo, C. (2008). Optimal impact strategies for asteroid deflection. Journal of guidance, control, and dynamics, 31(4), 858. https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/1.33432?journalCode=jgcd

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.