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How to Read a Scientific Article

Handout Summary: Reading a scientific article is a complex task. The worst way to approach this task is to treat it like the reading of a textbook—reading from title to literature cited, digesting every word along the way without any reflection or criticism. Rather, you should begin by skimming the article to identify its structure and features. As you read, look for the author’s main points. Generate questions before, during, and after reading. Draw inferences based on your own experiences and knowledge. And to really improve understanding and recall, take notes as you read. This handout discusses each of these strategies in more detail.

  1. Skim the article and identify its structure
  2. Distinguish main points
  3. Generate questions and be aware of your understanding
  4. Draw inferences
  5. Take notes as you read

How to Read and Understand a Scientific Article

From Introduction

Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process from reading an article about science in a blog or newspaper. Not only do you read the sections in a different order than they are presented, but you also have to take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go look up other papers in order to understand some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first, but be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience.

The type of scientific paper discussed here is referred to as a primary research article. It is a peer-reviewed report of new research on a specific question (or questions). Most articles will be divided into the following sections: abstract, introduction, methods, results, and conclusions/interpretations/discussion.

  • Begin by reading the introduction, not the abstract.
  • Identify the big question.
  • Summarize the background in five sentences or less.
  • Identify the specific question(s).
  • Identify the approach.
  • Read the methods section.
  • Read the results section.
  • Determine whether the results answer the specific question(s).
  • Read the conclusion/discussion/interpretation section.
  • Go back to the beginning and read the abstract.
  • Find out what other researchers say about the paper.

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