How to Read a Scientific Paper; Part 2: Breaking Down the Information

Today’s blog post was created in collaboration with Tanya Brown, PhD the Science Director for TESS Research Foundation and was cross-posted to the Science Simplified Blog.

Reading a scientific research article can be really daunting. Scientists who have studied a specific topic for many years are more likely to use “jargon” or very specific and complex terms that even scientists in other fields may not understand, let alone someone without a science background. So how do you begin approaching a research article you are interested in? Last month, we wrote a blog post about the anatomy of a research article, which is a great place to start—making sure you are familiar with all the parts and sections of the paper. Now, in this month’s blog, we will talk about how to approach reading and understanding those sections.

Science is all about asking and answering questions. Ideally, scientific papers answer a scientific question. The best papers make their question clear for the reader, but in other papers it may be more complicated to identify. Reading a scientific article can often lead to more questions, especially since each person reads an article with a different perspective. These different perspectives are key to driving science forward because we think of new questions to tackle. Whether you are a patient, scientist, family member, industry partner, or someone interested in a particular subject, your opinion is important and can help unravel unanswered questions.

Pro Tip: Before you start reading a scientific paper, grab some highlighters and note taking supplies. If you printed the paper out, mark it up as you go along!. If you are using a digital copy, take notes on a sheet of paper or make digital annotations. This can be helpful as you break the paper down or when you go back to it for a re-read!

There are some key steps to understanding a scientific paper. How do you even get started? Just like last month, we are going to use an open-access paper published  last year from the laboratory of Scott Baraban with lead author Aliesha Griffin. This paper uses zebrafish to study epilepsy. Download the paper if you would like to follow along with the examples throughout the blog!

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What is the big scientific question the authors set out to answer? 

Start with the Title and Abstract. These sections should highlight the key findings from the study and provide the reader with the general focus of the paper. This should help the reader identify the major scientific question the paper is trying to answer.

  • The Title is often the big take-away message of the paper and should tell the reader what the paper is about. Even titles take effort to understand! Don’t be afraid to use a dictionary or ask Google to define the key words.

Pro Tip: You might find it helpful to keep a running list of the unfamiliar words and their brief definition on a note page or in the margin of the paper for easy reference while reading. This is also a good idea for any abbreviations the authors decide to use.

  • The Abstract describes an overview of the paper and the main conclusions. However, it’s important to note that the Abstract is what the authors interpreted as the main conclusions. After looking at the information presented in a paper, you might come to a different conclusion!
  • Remember, the authors decided what was most important and included it, but reading the entire paper allows you to assess if these interpretations are appropriate.

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Identify each section of the paper. Depending on the journal in which the article is published, the sections might come in a slightly different order, but most papers have the same few sections (to review what is included in each section of a paper, check out last month’s blog.

  • Scan through the paper to identify the sections.
  • Locate the figures and tables in the paper. This will help orient you to the layout of the paper.

Read the Introduction. The Introduction should give you the background information to understand why this study was done and how it led to the big question of the paper. This is written so that scientists in different fields should be able to understand the overarching question of the paper.

By the end of the Introduction you should have a few pieces of information that you can rewrite in your own words to help you understand the paper. These may include:

  • What is the big problem or question the study set out to help answer?
  • Scientists investigate scientific questions by developing hypotheses: The hypothesis is the specific idea the authors set out to test with the study based upon the previous knowledge from the scientific literature. What do you think is the specific hypothesis they are testing in the study?

How did the authors answer the scientific question? 

Next, look at the figures. Before reading the text of the Results section, start by reviewing each of the figures. Figures in scientific articles can get quite large, but are usually broken down into panels, labeled by letters or numerals. Generally, one figure will cover one broad topic.

To look at each figure, you can:

  • Read the Figure title and rearrange it to a question to get an idea of what the figure will cover. For example, in Figure 1 of Griffin et al. 2021, the title of Figure 1 is “The Epilepsy Zebrafish Project (EZP).” To think about this in a scientific context, you can change the title to: “What is the Epilepsy Zebrafish Project? (EZP)”
  • Look at the individual panels in the figure. What does each graph show? Sometimes this involves the squint test: Is there a general upward or downward trend? Don’t be afraid to make notes on the figure, highlighting or circling what you find important, or making notes to help your interpretation.
  • The Figure legend is found below or next to individual figures. This tells you what is included in each part of the figure in scientific terms.

You might run into some unfamiliar items in a figure legend. Here are a few examples:

  • “N”: The letter N is used to refer to the sample size. Depending on the type of experiment that could mean the number of animals, cells, subjects or samples used to replicate the experiment.
  • “p”: The letter p with a =, <, or > symbol followed by a number beside it is a statistic that indicates whether two or more results are considered truly different from one another. The most common standard by which results that are considered to be significantly different is p<0.05, which means there is only a 5% chance you might be wrong in that conclusion. Anything greater than 0.05 is considered too strong of a possibility that the results may be different due to random chance.
  • There are a lot of abbreviations! It can be helpful to make notes on the figure to remind yourself of what the abbreviations mean.

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You can probably skip reading the Methods in detail. The Methods, often found either after the Introduction or at the end of the paper, should provide enough detail for another scientist to be able to replicate their results. For that reason, the Methods sections can be particularly technical and full of dense terminology. As a lay reader, orient yourself to where you can find the methods in the paper and use them as a point of reference if you need additional information.

After assessing the figures, read through the Results section. The Results section is where the information from each experiment is presented. This could include graphs, charts, images, or other information that was collected during the scientific investigation. The text of the Results section will cover both what was presented in the figures as well as any additional results that may be included in the Supplementary Information, which is a section of the paper that includes extra information that didn’t quite fit in the main body of the article. Despite the name, there’s often very important information in the Supplementary Information sections!

Pro Tips for the Results Section:

  • Find the sub-headings in each paper. These guide the reader by highlighting the main points of the paper.
  • Next, try to write the headings in your own words. Don’t worry about the specifics here, these are just the big picture ideas. It might be helpful to match these headings up to the figures that correspond to them.
  • Scientists also use Google to look up key terms. For example, these headings can help identify phrases to look up. One key phrase to look up here might be: “loss-of-function”.

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Now let’s walk through an example from Griffin et al. 2021:

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After reading the Results section, it’s good to pause and think about what YOU think of the information that was presented. Did a graph show a specific trend? What do you think the results show? Here is a good opportunity to think about what you think the main message of the paper is.

Pro Tips for Interpreting the Results Section:

  • Write down 1-2 sentences of what you think the results show
  • Write down a few questions about the information found in the results sections
  • Is there more information you would like to know that would help you understand the experiment better?


What is the take-away message from the paper? 

The take-away message is what you will tell your friends about when they ask what you have been reading lately. Writing this out before you read the Discussion and/or Conclusion sections may help you to think critically about the conclusions the authors draw.

Read the Discussion and Conclusion sections: The Discussion section is like the final chapter of a book, but that book is only one part of a series. It has a conclusion but leaves you wanting to know what happens next. In the case of science, it leads to the next scientific question or experiment. The Discussion section summarizes the findings of the information shown in the paper and adds in extra details that the reader may not have known about. This is an opportunity for the authors to share their interpretation of the results, place the conclusions in the grand scheme of science, and identify more questions to answer in the future.

Let’s take the Discussion and Conclusion section of Griffin et al. 2021 as an example:

The authors:

  • Describe a big question they were trying to address in the first sentence of the Discussion.
    • They note a major challenge in many genetic epilepsies: there are limited animal models available to study individual epilepsies.
    • They note the big question they set out to answer: How can scientists study monogenic epilepsies? 
  • Explain how they tried to address this question: by using a scientific tool (CRISPR/Cas9) to develop different zebrafish models for many of these epilepsies. 
  • Put their results in a broader context: the Epilepsy Zebrafish Project is a tool that can be shared with other researchers interested in epilepsy research.

After reading Aliesha Griffin’s paper, I might tell my friends:

“There is a group of scientists at UCSF developing zebrafish to study different genetic epilepsies. They used a variety of methods to characterize each zebrafish and have created a resource to share with other scientists. This will help more people to study epilepsy with powerful research tools.” 

Would you have a different take-away message?

Reading a scientific paper takes a lot of work. There are often more questions than answers after you read a paper! Scientists regularly read papers multiple times, sometimes days apart to take in all the information and return to a topic with a fresh perspective. Remember that you can also reach out to the corresponding author to ask some follow-up questions. Scientists love to learn that people are reading their work and their information is provided for a reason, so that they can discuss their research with people who are interested.

Discussing science is one of the best ways to make science better and it helps everyone. If you come across a paper you find interesting and want to discuss it, reach out and let us know!  Email: 

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Today’s blog was co-written by Tanya Brown, PhD. Tanya is the Scientific Director for TESS Research Foundation. She spent 12 years as a bench scientist studying developmental biology and developmental neuroscience. Tanya first realized her passion for science in the Pacific Northwest studying the impact of oil on cardiac development in fish at NOAA. She then received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Student Fellowship for her investigation of oligodendrocyte and myelin development. She completed her PhD in Cell Biology, Stem Cells, and Development from the University of Colorado and then received an NSF Fellowship for her post-doctoral research studying neuronal innervation of the skin. While investigating neural development, she also studied how university students best learn science. Overall, she has a passion to make science accessible and collaborative to drive research forward.

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