Dissecting a Scientific Journal Article

Let’s face it, reading through a scientific journal article, while enlightening, can be dull. The concise writing is dense and difficult to digest and without the proper training in the subject matter, one can get bogged down by jargon and acronyms and become discouraged and bored. The best written journal articles remain concise but serve to tell the ‘story’ of how a particular result was discovered, but a perfectly drafted ‘story’ takes time which is in such short supply for many researchers.

Let’s break down the different components of the scientific journal article and highlight some tips to make comprehension of its content a little easier.

Overview

manuscript-overview

Steps to Dissecting a Scientific Paper

1. Take notes!

Writing concepts in your own words increases comprehension. Take notes, draw diagrams and flow charts, and write down words and acronyms you don’t know to look up. This is key. Jargon is tedious but important. Write down a term you don’t know, look it up, check your understanding within the context it was used.

2. Read the Introduction and skim the Abstract to gain a contextual framework. 

Doing this will provide you with the necessary contextual framework off of which you can base the rest of your understanding. Ask yourself…

  • Why are they conducting the study?
  • What question are the researchers trying to answer?
  • How are the researchers approaching the question?
  • For whom is this relevant and how could it affect them?

3. Skim the Methods section.

The Methods section is easily the most painstakingly difficult section of any piece of scientific literature to get through. They likely include concentrations of solutions, incubation times, technical specifications for molecular dynamics simulations, and the list goes on and on and on…

The fact is that, unless you plan on repeating the experiment conducted by the authors of the paper or you are interested in using a similar methodology for an experiment of your own, you’re not going to need to know all of the intricate details of every method used to complete the experiment. What is important is that you understand what the methods do, how it is relevant to the research question, and what its results mean.

4. Move on to the Results.

The results are the meat and potatoes of the scientific study. They are what all conclusions are drawn from. It is highly important to understand the content of this section to be able to meaningfully discuss the study.

  •  Analyze all figures and read all captions. The bulk of the results will be in figures and tables and captions describe what the figure is telling you.
  •  Relate all results back to the original question. Infer the meaning each result before reading the discussion.

5. Pay attention to statistics.

Statistical analyses play a crucial role in research. It allows a researcher to determine if the results they are seeing are probabilistically representative of the reality they are trying to discover – and they can be tricky. Here are some tips:

    • Large sample sizes are more reliable. If a particular result is being observed in 9/10 samples, that result is more subject to random chance than say a particular result being observed in 90/100 samples.
      Example: There are 200 apples in a barrel and you predict that 90% of them are red as opposed  to green. What instance is more reliable in proving the truth of your prediction.
      1) You pick 10 apples from the barrel. 9 of them are red, 1 is green.

      2) You pick 100 apples from the barrel. 90 of them are red, 10 are green. 
      Option 2 is of course the correct answer because option 1, being a smaller sample size, is more subject to random chance. The probability of drawing 90% red apples out of 100 by chance is much lower than if it were only out of 10.
  • “Significance” is a statistical term, not just a descriptor of a result’s relative importance. Learn more about these first two concepts here.
  • If the study does not have meaningful statistical data, it may not be reliable.

6. Read the Discussion and Conclusions.

Having read and understood the results, see how the researchers reconcile the results and form their conclusions. If you have a limited knowledge of the topic, you may not be able to discern whether the researchers are grasping at straws when it comes to reconciling results into meaningful conclusions, but one can certainly determine if the researchers are answering the question the study was asking. Using the knowledge you’ve gained from reading the study ask yourself again…

  • Why are they conducting the study?
  • What question are the researchers trying to answer?
  • How are the researchers approaching the question?
  • For whom is this relevant and how could it affect them?

7. Reread the Abstract.

Rereading the abstract all the way through, after skimming it initially, serves as a great way to wrap up the study. It can work to remind you of things you may have forgotten and solidify the information in your mind.

8. Reflect.

How can the information you’ve gained be used? Can you use it in your everyday life? Do you know someone that may be affected by this discovery? Think critically and skeptically. Does the information make sense? The beautiful thing about science is that it’s a collaborative endeavor.


The idea to write this blog entry came frm Dr. Jennifer Raff’s blog ‘Violent Metaphors’:

Raff, Jennifer. “How to Read and Understand a Scientific Paper: A Guide for Non-scientists.”Violent Metaphors. N.p., 31 Jan. 2015. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

Questions? Thoughts? Perspectives? Additions? Please leave such responses below. Thanks!

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