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Reading & Understanding Scientific Texts

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

Peer-reviewed scientific journals are much denser than your average reading material. In this lesson we will discuss how to find a good scientific journal article, and then how to read it.

Finding Credible Articles

If you're faced with reading a scientific article for the first time, you might not realize what a thing of beauty it is. The process of peer review is a large part of how science progresses so quickly. However, the first step to reading a good scientific journal article is finding a credible one.

Some articles you do need to pay for. If you belong to a college or university, your institution may have a paid subscription to many scientific journals. Quality, open-access (free) journals like Public Library of Science are dedicated to providing research for anyone with internet access.

But let the buyer beware! Some open-access journals are pay-to-play, meaning that they will publish papers whether they are good or not, and then profit by charging the authors a fee. Certain activist or religious groups will sometimes utilize these to give the impression that they have credibility, although their ideas have been broadly rejected by the scientific consensus.

General Tips on Reading

There is no one right way to read a scientific journal article, because people read them for many different purposes. If you're just looking for a broad overview of a topic, you may consider searching for a review paper rather than a paper describing an experiment.

Unless you're a leading scientist in the area your paper covers, the most important thing to remember is to slow down! Because scientific articles can be dense, be prepared to read the article more than once and to look up words you don't know. Even scientists can be overwhelmed by a particularly dense article. Just remember that the author of the paper probably spent several years researching the topic, and you're trying to understand what they learned in a very short time frame.

Many people find scientific articles easier to read in hard copy, so if you found one online, you may want to print it out. Get a highlighter and a pen.

If the subject matter is unfamiliar to you, don't be afraid to use Wikipedia or a similar source to get a handle on some background information. It's true that Wikipedia can be wrong sometimes, but it's pretty good at giving you a broad picture of the subject matter.

Scientific Papers generally are split into sections. Let's go over those sections now.

Abstract

When you read a scientific journal article, start with the abstract. The abstract is designed to be the complete journal article but in miniature, distilled down to its most essential parts. They are a succinct version of the rest of the paper you'll be reading, so they'll help you to contextualize information as you are learning.

Read it carefully; you'll probably want to do so more than once. The abstract, which is usually around one paragraph long, will let you know whether this particular paper fits with your interests or not.

Introduction

The purpose of the Introduction is to give the reader background information about the topic and explain why the research was a good idea. Assuming you're not already a leading expert on the topic, the Introduction will fill you in. It should then describe the reasoning behind the current experiment.

Most of the information in the introduction is information that is available elsewhere. If you're a novice on the subject, you should pay careful attention because it will help you know why the research is relevant. You may also find certain ideas in the introduction intriguing, and this can lead you to other papers you would like to read. Experts in the field will skim the introduction because they're familiar with the information already.

Methodology

The Methodology is there to give a very detailed description of how the experiment was done. The level of detail in the methodology might seem overboard, but it's designed that way so that someone else will be able to replicate it.

If you're reading the scientific paper because you're looking to design an experiment of your own, the methodology should be of special interest to you. A technique many people find helpful is to make diagrammatic sketches of the methodology so that they can better visualize what is going on.

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