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How to read scientific journal articles

Whether a student or seasoned professor, regardless of field or discipline, one thing that all scientists must do is read scientific journal articles.

how to read research articles

Don’t read a paper from beginning to end

Reading journal articles is not like reading a book or a blog article: while stories are meant to be read from beginning to end, reading every word in a scientific paper in the exact order it was written is not the way to go.

Back in undergrad and during the first year of grad school, it took me a very long time to read a paper.  I used to read every word from the abstract to the conclusion, sometimes rereading passages that I couldn’t understand very well, and stopping frequently to look up terms and information I wasn’t familiar with.  By the time I got to the end, I had forgotten the important bits, and had to go back and read some of it again.  This way of reading took a very long time – time that grad students don’t really have.

In order to have time to do actual research, do you stop reading papers?  No, there is a smarter way to read that efficiently gets at the important information you want, and keeps the main point of the paper fresh in your head.

The smart way to read a journal article (with the help of ReadCube)


Step 1:  Go over the title, abstract, and figures.

This will give you an overview of the paper, show you the major results, and takes only a few minutes.  At the end of this step, create a note on this paper in ReadCube to summarize what it’s about.  Notes will really help when you need to go back to the paper in the future.  If you have many papers to read and very little time, you can stop at this step and move on.


Step 2: Read the results section (and methods sections as needed).

The results section is the meat of the paper so read it carefully.  Many results are summarized in figures, so go over them again in more detail.  If the study uses unfamiliar protocols, refer to the methods section as you read though each experimental result.  At times, the methods and metrics used in the study could really color the results, so read discriminately.

As you read, use ReadCube to highlight words and phrases you don’t understand.  Also, create notes to define vocabulary and jot down your thoughts.

take notes on journal papers


Step 3: Read the introduction and conclusion.

The introduction section provides a reason for why the study was conducted.  If you are very familiar with the topic, you can skip the introduction.  But for students and those new to the field, the introduction offers many things.  For one, it gives you the scientific background for the field of study, and better yet, it lists other relevant studies through the citations.  Accessing the cited works is exceptionally easy with the enhanced PDF  function in ReadCube.  All the citations are clickable right in the text; at the click of a button, ReadCube will automatically find the cited article for you.  (As a bonus, clicking on the authors in enhanced PDFs brings up a list of their previous publications).

readcube enhanced pdf

The conclusion section is where the authors discuss the relevance of their findings in relation to previous studies in the field.  I once had a very esteemed professor tell me that they almost never read the conclusion section if they can help it.  In a way, the conclusion is the authors’ interpretation of their own results, and your own opinion may differ.  However, like with the introduction, the conclusion further offers more details on relevant studies in the field, which are very much worth looking into if you want to learn more.

Following this guideline of reading papers should save you a lot of time and clearly identify the main results.

Happy reading!

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