How to Read a Scientific Paper or Article

Ever tried to read a scientific paper? If you’re finding it difficult, you aren’t alone! Many people struggle to understand scientific literature. No matter your education or background, learning how to read science is a skill that takes time to develop.

Even though it is a challenge, scientific articles contain valuable information. When fully understood, that information can help people make decisions crucial to their lives.

Anyone—even non-scientists—can learn how to read science articles. So grab a warm drink and get comfortable. We’ve written a research reading guide with eight steps to make reading academic papers easy!

How to Be Your Own Scientific Research Detective

Why You Should Learn How to Read Research Articles

Peer-reviewed articles were once trusted sources for the latest breaking and noteworthy discoveries in the world of science and medicine. Today, many fields of study are influenced and controlled by companies and entities that have little interest in educating and informing the public.

Many journals and scientific papers have devolved to become a form of advertising for products and questionable methods.

It is up to you, the consumer, to read and decide if something is the truth or if someone is twisting data to influence the public and ultimately sell more products.

Here’s the unfortunate reality: just because it is published in a scientific journal does not mean it is fact. For that reason, the ability to detect the truth while reading a paper is invaluable.

Don’t allow yourself to be fooled! Today, we’ll show you how to critically read a scientific paper. Check out the full guide: How to Become a Research Detective. Or keep reading to learn eight science reading tips you can rely on.

One more thing before we get started – big thanks to Aaron Hertz, the research detective who inspired us and helped to create this guide. Check his satirical yet informative guide to cooking data and stay for his incredible investigative work!

8 Steps: How to Read a Research Paper

If you want to learn how to read a scientific article, you’ll find a lot of the same advice. Most guides will tell you that skimming the abstract, introduction, methods, and results section will be enough to gain a “basic understanding” of whatever you are reading.

However, to fully understand, you’ll need to know more than the basic anatomy of science writing. Instead, you need advice that teaches you what to look for and how to think.

  1. Always Read the Disclosure Section
  2. Check the Published Date of the Paper
  3. Skim All the Sections of the Paper
  4. Read the Introduction
  5. Identify How the Paper Fits into the Field of Research
  6. Read the Discussion Section
  7. Read the Abstract
  8. Read the Methods and Results Section

1. Always Read the Disclosure Section

This section is crucial to decipher whether the study is biased. The disclosures section will reveal whether the study was conducted independently or whether a person, company or other group had an impact on the study outcome. A study should ideally not have any conflicts of interest.

If the section shows that the researchers have received money from a company or work for a university that is receiving money from a drug company, they are not independent researchers. You should stop here and dismiss the study.

If you are unsure or if another entity is sponsoring the research, find out who is involved in the noted organizations and see if they have another agenda or receive the support of companies.

This requires a little time and detective work. Do you see that they have received support from any companies? Do the researchers have investments in the company’s drug? Are they receiving monies from an organization that supports a company?

Check the authors for any affiliations

2. Check the Published Date of the Paper

Is this research up to date?

Knowing the publication date will help you determine whether these are the most recent findings. Sometimes additional research has been done since a study’s publication date.

One way investigators can manipulate data is by releasing some data first to create a certain belief and then quietly releasing the rest later. This is an effective strategy for manipulating public opinion.

3. Skim All the Sections of the Paper

Make notes for yourself while reading each section to help evaluate the study and clarify questions you may have. As you go along, take notes, and look up the definitions of any words you’re unsure of.

If you come across an acronym later in a work