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How to read a scientific paper

Tips to learn the process of reading and evaluating a scientific paper.

Initial Thoughts

When you are starting off with the research process even reading abstracts can seem hard and overwhelming. Don't worry, you will get better with practice!  Also, you don't need to understand everything you are reading. The key is get enough information to gauge whether the paper is worth exploring further for your current project or assignment.

Take notes systematically throughout the process. These notes are for you, so they don't need to be beautiful but try to have them stored in a manner that lets you find them easily.  Zotero can help you with this!

Reading Strategy

Read the Title and Abstract first!  Most of your searches in databases will give you both the title and abstract in the list of results.  Are the title and its keywords related to the topic you're looking for?  Is the information in the abstract relevant or useful to your research goal?  If not, then move on to the next article.

If the article appears relevant, then read the Introduction and Discussion/Conclusion. Use these to evaluate what is already known about the topic, what makes this research unique, and the meaning and importance of the study.

Next, read the Methodology and Results.  Assess the completeness of the methods and if the analysis of the data agrees with the data presented.  The methods section should provide enough information for you to replicate the experiment or study yourself.

Don't forget the References!  The list of citations can lead you to other pertinent articles as well as spotlighting authors prominent in this field.

As you read keep in mind that it's normal to not know all the key words in an area of research. A part of the research process involves skimming through papers to spot these words and to get familiar with them.  Keep track of what you've read and want to use in Zotero (or other citation management tools).  It will make writing your research paper and doing inline citations and the bibliography so much easier!

This video Guided Tour of a Scholarly Journal Article may help.

Read Actively!

While you are reading:

  • Keep your research question in mind.

  • Focus on what is relevant to your question.

  • Question what you read and think critically to build your own arguments.

  • Look up words you don't know.

  • Take notes.

  • Reflect on what you've read and draw your own conclusions.