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Getting Better at Understanding Academic Papers: a Brief Guide for Beginners (Part 1)

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«Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article» — writes the TV presenter and molecular biologist Adam Ruben. In a way, he's right — many of us get lost in the often confusing language of peer-reviewed papers. But the situation does not have to be hopeless. A bit of effort on the readers' part can go a long way. We looked at the techniques actual scientists use to navigate academic content.

And compiled them into this two-part guide (part 2).

Фото Campaign Creators / Unsplash.com

Picking the Right Paper

The easiest way to save time and effort when reading academic content is to be more selective. Is the paper you picked even worth reading? How high is the probability that it contains the information you seek? What kind of papers should you be looking for in the first place?

Academic sources fall into one of the two categories — primary and secondary.

Primary sources contain information about original research projects. In the world of STEM, this category typically includes reports and case studies, as well as some, but not all editorials and conference papers.

If you already know a fair deal about the subject you're trying to research, and are looking to expand this knowledge, or find an answer to a very specific question, it's a good idea to look for a primary source. Case studies come in handy when trying to confirm your hypothesis.

Primary sources are also a good way to find emerging fields of study and new subjects to research, as well as to get an understanding of your academic peers' methodology.

Most well-written primary sources are similarly structured. They follow the IMRaD model, which means that they typically consist of the following components: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.

The structure of the article is subject to the journal's editorial policy, so your mileage may vary. But the logic stays unchanged: to showcase the results of a project, you need to know why it was commissioned, how the research was conducted, what the results were and why we should care about them.

Фото Daoud Abismail / Unsplash.com

The secondary sources category contains overviews of various scientific topics, book reviews, commentary papers, systematic and meta-analysis. The word 'secondary' is in no way pejorative, it is an indicator that the paper does not contain original research. Pick a secondary source to get acquainted with a new subject, get an understanding of how saturated a research field is, and find new areas to dig into.

Now that you picked a paper you're likely to understand, the most important thing is to fight the urge to read it from start to finish. There's still a chance the article you picked is not quite right for you.

Charles G. Durbin gives the following advice in his article titled «How to read a scientific research paper»:

  1. Make sure the title and the keywords match the topic you need.
  2. Read the abstract and the conclusion first.
  3. If both are well-written and relevant to your interests, you can read the rest of the paper.
  4. Following this simple algorithm can save you quite a lot of headache.

Cutting the cake

If at this point you're dead-set on reading the paper you picked, it's time to get acquainted with its structure.

The title page gives the reader an indication of what the paper's subject is, and the kind of research it contains. However, titles of editorials, book reviews and many other secondary sources are often vague. To clear things up, look for other publications by the paper's authors to pinpoint the area of their expertise.

The abstract is a summary of the paper. It rarely spans more than a paragraph, and should contain information pertaining to the context of the undertaken research, its goals, methods, results, and conclusions.

Фото Brian Jones / Unsplash.com

The introduction answers the question why. It provides a detailed explanation of the context which prompted the scientists to perform this research, an overview of similar papers from the past, and the questions they left unanswered. All of this explains the authors' goals, as well as what this paper can offer to his fellow scientists.

If you find this section hard to understand, it might be a good idea to leave the paper alone and read something more general before proceeding further. Research is hard work, often taking years for scientists to complete — there's no shame in admitting that you're not ready to read the paper just yet.

The methods section describes the actions undertaken by the authors — how the data was collected, how the samples were picked, which experiments were conducted. It can help you determine the scope of the research, and understand the actions you'd have to take to reproduce the authors' results.

The results section contains raw data, as well as graphs and diagrams based on this data. Researchers rarely have the time to explain all the data points — so pay close attention to all the details.

The discussion section contains researchers' own interpretation of the previously described data alongside their opinion of their own work. This section puts the paper into greater scientific context, and attempts to explain why the measurements that were conducted yielded precisely these results.

Given the subjectivity at play, you should reserve the right to disagree with the overarching sentiment of the paper's authors. Examine it critically to find further research opportunities.

Further reading:

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