How to Read a Scientific Paper

Reading a scientific paper, also called a research paper, requires a different approach from other types of reading. If you try to read a scientific paper straight through, you may find that you don't comprehend much of it. However, if you take a step-by-step approach designed to prepare yourself for reading the paper, you'll fare better.


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    Check the list of authors and the publication the paper appears in. Generally, the publication should be a peer-reviewed journal with a good reputation. Find out who the authors are, where they work, and what other papers they've published. The less reputable the publication and authors, the more skeptically you should view the paper.
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    Read the abstract. The abstract sums up the paper in 1 paragraph, explaining the purpose of the research, the results, and the conclusions of the researchers. The abstract allows you to determine whether the scientific paper is relevant to your own work, so you don't waste time on papers that aren't useful to you.
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    Skim the entire paper. Look at the major headings and glance at the figures and tables. Get an idea of how long the paper is and how many sections it's broken into.
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    Highlight words or phrases you don't understand. Scan the entire paper, line by line, marking words that you need to look up in a scientific or medical dictionary. Also look for phrases you don't understand. For example, you may understand the words "control" and "group," but not know what the phrase "control group" means.
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    Read the paper. Have a notebook handy to jot down questions that come to you as you read. When you're finished reading the paper, you may want to store your notes with it in case you go back to review it again later. Scientific papers generally include:
    • An introduction that gives the same information that's in the abstract, but in more detail. While the abstract helped you decide whether to read the paper, the introduction will tell you what to look for. It will also summarize previous research so you can see how the research described in the paper contributes to the field of study as a whole.
    • The methods section describes how the researchers investigated the question posed in the introduction. As you read about the methods, ask yourself if it seems likely that the methods produced useful outcomes and what those outcomes might be.
    • In the results section, researchers state the outcomes of their methods. Check them against what you guessed the results would be when you read about the methods. Some publications have space limitations that require the researchers to shorten their paper, so the results may be a part of the methods section.
    • In the discussion section, the researchers talk about what they learned from their research. This is often the most important part of the paper, because the researchers will interpret their results and discuss at length what they think their results mean to their field of study.
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    Draw your own conclusions. Go back over your notes and see if all of your questions were answered. Ask yourself if you agree with the conclusions reached by the researchers. They may have made incorrect assumptions starting out, or the researchers may have had biases that caused them to use faulty methods in order to get the results they wanted.


  • Peer review is the process of submitting a scientific paper to other researchers working in the field of study, who decide if the quality of the research is good enough to merit publication.


  • Just because a research paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal, does not mean that the methods were good or the researchers drew the right conclusions. The methods are duplicated by others who will write their own papers, which sometimes conclude that the authors of the original paper made errors in their research.

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Categories: College and University Study Techniques