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AES Research: How to Read a Scientific Article

How to read a scientific article

Reading scientific/scholarly research articles may seem overwhelming and confusing at the beginning of your academic journey. These steps provide guidance on how to read a scientific article. Do not approach a scientific article like a textbook and highlight/take notes throughout the article. Taking notes will keep you focused and help you work towards comprehending the article.

1. Skim the article. First, don't try to comprehend the entire article at this point; get a basic overview. You don’t have to read in order; the discussion/conclusions will help you determine if the article is relevant to your research. You might then continue on to the Introduction. Pay attention to the structure of the article, headings, and figures.

2. Understand unknown vocabulary. Go through the article and highlight words and phrases you do not understand. For some words or phrases, you may understand the context in which it is used, but for others, assistance from a medical or scientific dictionary may be needed. Subject-specific dictionaries are available online. PubMed also has a medical dictionary.

3. Identify the structure of the article and work on your comprehension. Most journals use an IMRD structure; An abstract followed by: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. These sections usually contain conventional features. If you learn to look for these features you will read and comprehend articles more quickly.

  • Abstract: gives an overview of the article and often contains four pieces of information: purpose or rationale of study (why they did it); methodology (how they did it); results (what they found); conclusion (what it means). Start with reading the abstract to make sure this is what you are looking for. If it is, then spend time reading the whole article. 
  • Introduction: gives background information about the topic and sets out specific questions to be addressed by the authors. You can skim through the introduction if you are already familiar with the paper’s topic.
  • Methods: gives technical details of how the experiment was carried out and serves as a “how-to” manual if you wanted to replicate the same experience. This is another section you may want to skim unless you wish to identify the methods used by the researchers or if you intend to replicate the research yourself.
  • Results: the meat of a scientific article and contain all of the data. Spend time looking at the graphs, pictures, and tables as these figures will contain most of the data.
  • Discussion: the authors’ opportunity to state their opinions. Discussions are the authors’ interpretations and not necessarily facts. It is still a good place for you to gather ideas about what kind of research questions are still unanswered in the field and what types of questions you might want your own research project to address.

4. Read the bibliography/references section. Reading the references may lead to other useful resources. References also provide resources to help the reader understand subject terminology, main concepts, and major researchers.

5. Reflect on the article and draw your own conclusions. As you are reading, record any questions that come to mind. They may be answered later on in the article, or you may have stumbled upon something that the authors did not consider. Here are some questions you may ask:

  • Do I understand the terminology?
  • Am I spending too much time on the less important parts of this article?
  • Do I need to question the credibility of this research? (Especially for articles found using Google)
  • What problem does the research address and why is it important?
  • How do these results relate to my research interests?

6. Read the article a second time in chronological order. Reading the article a second time will reinforce your overall understanding. You may even start to make connections to other articles that you have read on this topic.