15 Tips for Reading a Scientific Research Paper

by Melissa Karnaze

One of the most valuable things I learned from college was how to read a published scientific study.

One of the first papers I read was about the arborization of dendritic spines, so you can imagine it was a bit intimidating starting out.

But now, almost four years later, I actually prefer to read a good research paper over breakfast, especially an affective science one. This is because many studies on emotion can be considered highly technical self-help writings, as research is showing more and more how our feelings are not so dangerous and mystified after all, but rather parts of ourselves that we must not neglect.

Thus, there are numerous studies relaying an empowering message about human behavior and human potential—and they are backed up by science.

Unfortunately, though, many of these studies are only circulated in club academia. If they reach the general public, they are at the mercy of the media—and we all know media can mean sound bite (with a mean sociopolitical slant). And when a study becomes a headline, you probably still have to purchase it to read it in its entirety, or have some type membership or university privilege (even if it’s just access to a university library computer).

Fortunately, some studies are made publicly available. Browsing through university laboratory pages is a great way to find papers for free (especially if you’re logged in at a university library computer).

Here are publication lists for three different university laboratories that are doing some exciting things in affective science:

    • Columbia University, Professor Kevin Ochsner’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab – I highly recommend reading even just the first few pages of the chapter, “Thinking makes it so: A social cognitive neuroscience approach to emotion regulation (pp. 221-255),” from K. Vohs & R. Baumeister (Eds.), The Handbook of Self-Regulation.

So now that you have reading material, are you ready to get started?

Well, if you need some encouragement, because you find that scientific papers are written for scientists and not the general public, don’t worry. These papers sound smart, but just think of them as scholarly and specialized—it’s not that you are less-than-smart if it’s a struggle for you to read them, it’s that you need to start practicing, because just like any other type of reading, digesting a study is a skill.

To undauntify the thought of downloading and reading a scientific research paper, follow these 15 helpful tips:

      1 ) To see if the study interests you, check the title, abstract, and parts of the conclusion if needed. A study isn’t written like a suspense story, so the meat of it should be obvious on the first page. This means that the bias (aka theoretical framework) of the authors should be obvious as well—since the researchers had assumptions and intuitions before the research, which informed their hypothesis and led them to conduct their study the way they did.
      3 ) Refresh on the 6 steps of the scientific method, because any peer-reviewed study will be based upon this process; it has to in order to be considered scientific.
      4 ) Keep in mind that the strength of a study lies in its controls—that is, how well the researchers minimized extraneous variables that could explain why the independent variable (i.e., the variable being changed) correlated with the dependent variable (i.e., the phenomena being studied, in regards to the independent variable).
      5 ) Don’t feel unworthy if you don’t understand all of the math—you can still get the main point without memorizing the tables, graphs, and charts. What you do need to know is that the study was published because it showed some phenomena having statistical significance. To read more about statistics, wikipedi it.
      6 ) Before reading, be prepared for jargon, or scientist speak. It’s there for other scientists to read, but you’re not excluded from the discussion—you just have to translate. It takes work, but hey it’s worth it when you can cite a cool study to impress your friends.
      7 ) Big words are the long and complicated version of smaller words. When you see a big word, domesticate it—look it up with a dictionary or wiktionary, or Google it, and then write out what it means in a way you can understand in the margin or your notes. When you see the big word again, it won’t appear as a wild animal, but a tamed one, and harmless.
      8 ) When you see an acronym, catch it! Don’t let your eyes roam any further until you write out in the margin or on your notes what the acronym means.
      • Here’s an example: Excerpt from a fictitious study – “The method of Working the Margin (WM) is highly effective when reading a publication for the first time. WM allows you translate words that are unfamiliar to you so that you can have a better understanding of what the authors are talking about. Only veteran consumers of publications, who are well versed in their field of study, can successfully read a study without WM.”
      See how the first time the acronym was introduced, it followed the term that it stands for? You can count on that freebie in every paper, so take advantage of it.
      9 ) If you get bogged down by the passive voice, turn it into the active voice. If you get bogged down by extra words or phrases that make one appear to be more intelligent, cross them out, or translate them. For scientists, streamlined writing isn’t the aim, so a paper is usually overtaken by the passive voice and verbiage, meaning that it is often slowed down so that the patience and commitment of the reader to finish the study are tested quite thoroughly throughout the duration of the particular reading under discussion. (That was to see if you were paying attention.)
      10 ) When you notice the same sentence or message being repeated again and again—you are on the right track! Researchers don’t go for style points, they repeat themselves as much as they possibly can to convey their hypothesis and/or conclusion and tell you again and again why they made such a good study (worth quoting to your friends).
      11 ) Don’t be afraid to reread sections, or reread the entire paper (multiple times if needed). If you reread, it means that (a) you are aware that you didn’t get it all the first time, and (b) you believe that with another go-around will get more out of it. That’s a good thing!
      12 ) Know that it takes practice for your brain to learn this new language—over time it will get easier and you will be able to read faster and get more out of it at the first reading.
      13 ) When you’re finished reading, test how successful you were by writing out in your own words: 
        (a) the hypothesis
        (b) how the researchers tested that hypothesis
        (c) what their results were
        (d) why those results supported (or fell short of supporting) their hypothesis
      14 ) If you want to go pro, discuss the study with someone else who has read it (bonus points for discussing with a member of club academia) to see if you both understood the same basic points. After that you can critique any parts of the study that weren’t clear or weren’t well founded. If you think studies can’t be criticized—one of my professors devoted an entire course for in-class critiques of cognitive science studies, so remember that critical reading can and needs to be done in order to improve research.
      15 ) Know that this list is only the beginning. You can spend months or years learning about a particular research method [e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)] and its strengths and limitations. You can also spend considerable time analyzing the experimental set-up, thinking about the ecological validity (or how the results have real-life relevance and applicability), and checking out the references and related studies.

If you are looking for some highly technical self-help reading material to inspire you over breakfast, these tips will help get you started. Textbooks and less-technical writings that cite studies are also informative, but there’s nothing like going to the source of the research.

If everyone were versed in the critical reading of cognitive-affective science and psychology studies, there would be a lot more critical thinking about what emotions are and how they are implicated in human behavior. And we boost our emotional intelligence when we read studies about emotion—so let’s get reading!

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Designing Experiments Using the Scientific Method – For Dummies

How to Read a Scientific Research Paper– a four-step guide for students and for faculty

How to Read a Scientific Paper

Suggestions for Further Study Searching:

A Psychological Literature Database: PsycINFO

A Biomedical Literature Database: PubMED (MEDLINE)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Grisel October 22, 2009 at 8:49 am

Hi,

These are excellent tips!!

Thank you for taking the time to share your recommendations,

Regards,
Grisel

Melissa Karnaze October 22, 2009 at 12:34 pm

My pleasure, Grisel. Thanks for the comment!

Hariett May 29, 2013 at 1:37 am

That was great; exactly I was looking for such a thing. thanks for share n good luck

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