How to read scientific papers – Part I

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By Reginald Smith

Photo by Ian Barbour.

As an amateur scientist, one typically starts with standard general science textbooks, then science textbooks in your area of interest, and finally even more specialized scientific textbooks about a specific topic. Eventually, however, one realizes that to understand the field state of the art, as well as many important specifics, one must tackle the scientific journal literature.

What one finds is that this literature is vast, sometimes hard to access, and depending on the field, mind numbingly complex. I remember when I first started reading scientific papers as an undergraduate, one feeling comes to mind: a sense of intimidation. Granted my specialty was physics and that is a field famous for pulling results from obscure mathematical formula or techniques but sometimes just the sight of a crazy integral would make my mind shut off and a little voice say, ‘you can’t understand this’.

This is probably similar in other fields. Though the math is usually not as crazy (or totally absent), there are obscure equations, terms, and principles that are referenced off-hand without a regard to detailed explanation. However, reading and understanding scientific literature is feasible for the dedicated person, even without formal training. There are several techniques I will cover in the next few posts to help you navigate this first understand and then critique papers.

Step 1: Finding Papers

For those of us, including myself, old enough to remember a world without Google Scholar, it is hard to overstate how much this has revolutionized scientific paper searching and indexing. No more relying on annual indexes or other papers to find usable references. Now all you need is the right keyword.

This is the easiest part; you know your topic and what to search for. However, once you do that you come up against your first challenge.

Step 2: Accessing Papers

Luckily due to preprint servers such as arxiv and author websites, many papers are available for download by the click of a pdf link in Google Scholar. Many others, however, are much more difficult to obtain. These fall into two categories: electronically available articles that are not online since the author didn’t put them there or was restricted by the journal’s author copyright permissions or those that are only available in print (typically older).

The best way to get these is to go to your local university library website, check to see if the journal and the specific volume are available online or in print and go get them. For electronic articles though, you can often email the primary author and ask for a pdf copy and you usually get one in a day.

Step 3: Journal ‘Prestige’

There are a lot of journals out there. This is mainly due to the increasing specialization of scientific research which requires a journal for every sub-discipline, the huge surge in the number of active researchers from the expansion of R&D funding in the West and Japan since World War II, and the expanding ranks of researchers from developing countries, university promotion and hiring criteria which often emphasize ‘publish or perish.’ This forces faculty and postdocs to drive output of papers in hope of advancement, and the emergence of journals controlled by large corporations instead of scholarly societies which prioritize sales by pushing or raising prices on established journals and releasing competitor journals in similar fields.

The most widely recognized measure of journal ‘prestige’ is the impact factor. This can be large double digits for world famous journals like Nature, Science, or Cell and can be less than 1 for lesser known journals. It is based on how many times the articles in a journal are cited over time. Impact factors are a long discussion in themselves but they can be both good and bad. Good, in that if a journal is abysmally low you may need to read its articles with care to make sure it is not a ‘dump journal’ that takes anything to sell issues. Bad, in that a high impact journal doesn’t make a paper inherently better or more worth reading. Several Nobel Prize winning papers in the past have been rejected by Nature (polymerase chain reaction, Krebs Cycle) so you should not limit yourself to high impact journals. It helps to have a general idea though in a field which journals are considered more highly.

Step 4: Basic Scientific Paper Structure

After your first few scientific papers you will notice they have a common structure:

  1. Title – Often unintelligible to those who are not familiar with the problem, this describes the focus of the paper.
  2. Authors – Names authors and affiliations. This can range from one to dozens depending on the size of the research. Typically the first person is the primary researcher for contact about the article.
  3. Abstract – This is important to read: it is a concise description of the papers focus, goal, and import. It is the first indication that you can use to see if this paper will discuss a topic useful to your search. Often, despite a title, by reading an abstract you can decide whether you need to plow through the paper as a whole.
  4. Main body: This is the main body of a paper. More on this later.
  5. Conclusion & Acknowledgments: The concluding section which summarizes paper findings and may have a discussion and the acknowledgment section of the paper.
  6. Supplementary data and graphs: some graphs or data that could not fit in the main paper.
  7. References: Papers, books, conference proceedings etc. referenced in the paper.

Step 5: Types of Papers

There are many sources for scientific papers but I separate them into four general types:

  1. Regular paper: typical peer-reviewed research paper, 5-20 pages in length. Focuses on research results from a group on a topic and is usually pretty succinct.
  2. Review paper: longer type of peer reviewed paper, often over 20 pages. It is a review of the literature in a field or sub-field and while it doesn’t usually describe new research or results, it is a valuable consolidation of research in a field up to a given point in time. As I will explain in the next article, this is often the best place for an outsider to break into a field.
  3. Conference proceedings: may or may not be peer reviewed and peer review may be less comprehensive even if it is done. These are papers submitted at conferences and often released in conference proceedings. These can be very useful as they typically state new results which may not have appeared in the peer reviewed press. Like journals though, not all conferences are created equally (see Forrest Mims’s article in The Citizen Scientist on ‘dump’ conferences: http://www.sas.org/tcs/weeklyIssues_2005/2005-04-22/editorial/index.html) so I typically stick with the most well-known conferences or those with proceedings editors being well-known names in the field. Again, however, DO NOT judge a paper’s worth solely on its journal or venue.
  4. Anthology chapters: Publishers, particularly Springer, will release books which are anthologies on topics where each chapter is a contributed paper. These can be useful though sometimes I find them much more dense and covering esoteric topics (sometimes unnecessarily so) than regular journal articles.

This concludes Part I. In Part II, I will talk about reading journal articles properly, dealing with math, and the value of following up citations.

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2 Responses to How to read scientific papers – Part I

  1. This is must reading for serious amateur scientists–and some of the professional scientists out there who need to be publishing more. Thanks, Reggie.

  2. Pingback: How to read scientific papers – Part II | Citizen Scientists League

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