How to read a research paper?

April 21, 2020

First of all we want to know why do you want to read a research paper?

  • To stay up to date in your field,
  • To advance your scientific understanding,
  • To review manuscripts,
  • You are asked to review it
  • To gather information for a project proposal / grant application.
  • It is relevant to your own research.

if your answer is YES, you are at right place. Continue reading…

Scientific articles are different from other  texts, like novels or newspaper stories, so they need to be read differently.

Research papers follow the well-known IMRD format — an abstract followed by the Introduction,Methods, Results and Discussion. They have multiple cross references and tables as well as supplementary material, such as data sets, lab protocols and gene sequences. All those characteristics  can make them dense and complex. Being able to effectively understand them is a matter of practice.

Reading a scientific paper should not be done in a linear way (from beginning to end); instead, it should be done strategically and with a critical mindset, questioning your understanding and the findings. Sometimes you will have to go backwards and forwards, take notes and have multiples tabs opened  in your browser, or it may require to go through a single paper several times.

Here are some tips for reading and understanding research papers.

When you read a research paper, your goal is to understand the scientific contributions the authors are making. which definitely isn’t an easy task.

Read critically:

Reading a research paper must be a critical process. You should not assume that the authors are always correct. Instead, be suspicious.

Critical reading involves asking appropriate questions. If the authors attempt to solve a problem, are they solving the right problem? Are there simple solutions the authors do not seem to have considered? What are the limitations of the solution (including limitations the authors might not have noticed or clearly admitted)? Are the assumptions the authors make reasonable? Is the logic of the paper clear and justifiable, given the assumptions, or is there a flaw in the reasoning?
If the authors present data, did they gather the right data to substantiate their argument, and did they appear to gather it in the correct manner? Did they interpret the data in a reasonable manner? Would other data be more compelling?

Read creatively:

Reading a paper critically is easy, in that it is always easier to tear something down than to build it up. Reading creatively involves harder, more positive thinking.

What are the good ideas in this paper?
Do these ideas have other applications or extensions that the authors might not have thought of?
Can they be generalized further?
Are there possible improvements that might make important practical differences?
If you were going to start doing research from this paper, what would be the next thing you would do?

Make notes as you read the paper:
Many people cover the margins of their copies of papers with notes. Use whatever style you prefer. If you have questions or criticisms, write them down so you do not forget them. Underline key points the authors make. Mark the data that is most important or that appears questionable. Such efforts help the first time you read a paper and pay big dividends when you have to re-read a paper after several months.

After the first read-through, try to summarize the paper in one or two sentences.
Almost all good research papers try to provide an answer a specific question. (Sometimes the question is a natural one that people specifically set out to answer; sometimes a good idea just ends up answering a worthwhile question.) If you can succinctly describe a paper, you have probably recognized the question the authors started with with and the answer they provide. Once you have focused on the main idea, you can go back and try to outline the paper to gain insight into more specific details. Indeed, if summarizing the paper in one or two sentences is easy, go back and try to deepen your outline by summarizing the three or four most important subpoints of the main idea.

If possible, compare the paper to other works.
Summarizing the paper is one way to try to determine the scientific contribution of a paper. But to really guage the scientific merit, you must compare the paper to other works in the area. Are the ideas really novel, or have they appeared before? (Of course we do not expect you to be experts and know the areas ahead of time!) It is worth mentioning that scientific contributions can take on many forms.
Some papers offer new ideas; others implement ideas, and show how they work; others bring previous ideas together and unite them under a novel framework. Knowing other work in the area can help you to determine which sort of contribution a paper is actually making.

Your one page review should include the following:
A one or two sentence summary of the paper.
A deeper, more extensive outline of the main points of the paper, including for example assumptions made, arguments presented, data analyzed, and conclusions drawn.
Any limitations or extensions you see for the ideas in the paper.
Your opinion of the paper; primarily, the quality of the ideas and its potential impact.

Happy Reading 🙂 

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