One way to avoid frustration is to set a goal for yourself before you begin: determine why are you reading this paper or what you hope to gain. If you are a student or recent graduate, consider reading papers with the intention to get the most out of them. For example, if you are interested in results or methodologies, then focus your attention on that specific section of the paper.
My advice is to split the reading process into the three phases discussed below. While following each phase, keep checking yourself for reading comprehension and don’t forget your original goal for reading this particular paper.
PHASE I: Skim the Article
Phase I teaches you how to skim the article to see how well-matched the paper is with your initial research question. This activity also works for articles that may not be appropriate for your immediate search, but could be helpful for future reference.
Read the Title and Abstract: If the title sounds relevant to your needs, your first task is to read the abstract and look for the purpose of the paper. The abstract, found at the beginning of the paper, summarizes the purpose of the research within one to two sentences. If the stated purpose resonates with your objective, continue to the next step. If not, it’s fine to leave the remainder of the paper unread.
Read the Conclusion: It may seem counterintuitive to read the last section of the paper, but the conclusion is where the author discusses their results in light of the proposed hypothesis and summarizes the major findings of previous studies. Assess the current state and limitations of what is presented in order to decide whether it is necessary to continue reading this paper.
Read the Results: Read the results section after the conclusion to develop a deeper insight into the study’s findings. Examine the figures and tables without looking at the captions so you can interpret them for yourself without the prompts of the descriptive text. This method gives you a good understanding of a large portion of the article because the figures and tables presented typically summarize the most important data from the study.
PHASE II: Move Towards a Deeper Understanding
Phase II allows you to have a deeper understanding of the content by asking you to further understand and summarize the key points as it relates to your research question. After skimming the article and deciding that you want to know more, continue on to this phase.
Read the Introduction: This section gives key information needed to understand the concept of the paper. The author moves from a broad perspective toward a narrow focal point that they want to address. Because science builds on references, this is the section where you should see a myriad of citations. Articles void of citations shouldn’t be considered research articles because true science demands supported, peer reviewed evidence.
Identify the Main Points: It is important to differentiate the main points from the supporting ones. Main points tell us what this study is all about, which helps in laying out the major findings of the article. Main points can be extracted at two levels: 1) the topic level, including key areas like the title, abstract, keywords and figures/tables, and 2) the description level, where key phrases such as, ‘we hypothesize,’ ‘we propose,’ and ‘we introduce’ are often used to indicate the main points.
Take Notes: Note-taking makes reading research papers more effective. While you are reading, you think that you will be able to recall the information you are taking in, but details easily slip away. So while reading, write down every question and dubious statement, highlight important areas, and underline dates that appear important. Challenge every assumption and write down your own criticism. Developing a template in this way is the most effective method for keeping a record of every article that you read. Template developing also helps to qualitatively assess various studies while performing literature reviews, as template development is a convenient way to create a summary of every research article that you read.
PHASE III: Summarize
Before beginning this phase, make sure you understand the difficult terms and concepts of the paper. Be sure that this paper fulfills what you are actually looking for. If the paper continues to tick all of your boxes, proceed to the methods and discussion sections. At the end of this phase, summarize the paper in your own words.
Read the Methods: This section tells the reader how the author conducted their study and quantified their results. To scientists, this portion is of utmost significance because they may use this section to replicate the study, troubleshoot their own methodologies or use it as a springboard for new study design. However, this section may be less useful to non-scientific readers as it doesn’t contribute much in the overall understanding of the findings.
Draw Inferences: Now, compile your interpretation of the significant claims and statements made in the paper to give yourself a better understanding of the research done. Efficient readers draw inferences based on their prior knowledge and the information provided in the paper. By doing this, they become better able to connect the dots and comprehend the material.
Re-write the paper: Making similar assumptions as the author, think about how you would discuss the results if they were your own. This practice gives you the chance to (1) identify conceptual gaps in the study, (2) see the limitations of proposed solutions, (3) determine the scientific contribution of a paper by comparing it with previous studies, and (4) find out if there are missing or weak citations.
For a beginner, reading research papers may feel overwhelming, but these effective guidelines will make the practice easy. With continuous and consistent practice, one can start to become a master at quickly digesting and understanding the information. Should you want to learn more about how to read scientific papers, below are some helpful links:
- Medium: How to Read a Research Paper
- Elsevier: How to Read a Scientific Paper
- Northcentral University Library: Reading a Scientific Article
- Harvard: How to Read a Research Paper
- Youtube: How to Read a Research Paper
- Rice University: How to Read a Scientific Article
Khola Abid is in her third year of PharmD at the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan. She is interested in the history and development of science. In her institution, she runs a team of young science communicators that designs highly cost-effective experiments to thereby communicate various physiological mechanisms to school-aged children. She loves to defy norms, but with a sense of sagaciousness. In her leisure time, she enjoys reading history and self-help genres.