Science and Word

Simple English for complex ideas

Category: How to Read Research

Learning how to read research papers can be painful but rewarding. These blogs help beginners interpret hard-to-understand scientific articles.

How to read a research paper

Whether you’re a student or a self-motivated bull**** spotter, there will likely come a time when you’re face-to-face with an academic research paper. Should you read it… or just click close? Although it’s tempting to skim the title and simply confirm it’s about the topic at hand, it might be worth your time to learn how to dig deeper into primary literature. Read on if you want to learn how to judge the evidence for yourself.

Why I send my readers straight to the evidence

If you’ve read my (Genevieve R. Moore’s) health articles, you may have noticed that I love linking to primary research. I send readers directly to the scientific evidence because there are many ways to interpret data, and every extra person separating you from the evidence pushes you further away from the truth.

It’s like the Telephone Game; nobody is intentionally screwing up the message, but by the time the message gets to you, it can become completely distorted.

Far too many online authors say “research shows…” followed by a statement that no researcher has ever shown… If a blogger can’t show you the research to support their claims, don’t trust them. And if you click on their links and they only lead to other blogs and listicles, this is a serious red flag that the actual findings have been garbled.

And that’s why I like to give my readers a chance to look at the evidence with their own eyes. Even if you choose not to read the research, at least you will know where to find the data. However, there are many great reasons to learn how to read research, including:

  • You can figure out when people are exaggerating or misinterpreting a study’s results.
  • When two studies prove opposite things (ie one says the ideal diet is a low-carb diet, while another claims a low-fat diet is best), you can compare them and decide which one you trust more.
  • Most scientific findings are never picked up by journalists – you can learn about interesting topics that aren’t covered by the media.

But research papers are boring and confusing!

I’m not going to sugar-coat this: Learning how to read research is frustrating. Scientific papers aren’t written for novices, and some authors use jargon-rich writing in order to signal how smart they are. I wish things were different, but for right now, scientists don’t write research papers with you in mind.

Don’t be surprised if your first paper takes 4 or more hours to really dig into and understand – so be choosy when picking your first paper! Make sure you’re truly excited about the topic.

Once you have that paper downloaded and printed for note-taking, this guide will prepare you for what you’re getting into. Here’s a breakdown of the standard sections found in most original research articles along with tips for reading (or skipping) each section:

The abstract is the hardest part

Don’t give up without reading beyond the abstract… because the abstract – the part of an article that’s unfortunately the easiest to find – is also typically the hardest part of the paper. That’s not just opinion; when researchers objectively evaluated top research papers for readability (based on word length and obscurity), they found that abstracts rate 2 reading-level years harder to read than the rest of the paper.

So, if you already know you want to understand a paper, but every sentence of the abstract looks like Latin – you might do yourself a favor and hold off reading the abstract till last. Think of the abstract as an obscure outline that will make more sense once you know how to fill in the spaces.

Having trouble accessing the full paper without paying exorbitant fees? More and more papers are offered online with free open access. However, many journals still require a purchase or subscription to access the article. You might check researchgate to see if the authors posted a publicly-available copy. Alternatively, if possible, you could find the paper through a local university library – which typically subscribe to most respectable journals.

The introduction (should be) the easiest part

This part of the paper dives into background. Authors use the introduction to set you up with all the pieces of information that will hopefully leave you asking the same exact questions they address with their paper.

The introduction might contain terms you’ve never heard of, but overall it should be fairly easy to read. If it’s painfully confusing, I hate to break it to you, but it’s a sign that the rest of the paper will be even worse. If this is a subject you really want to understand, then take the time to decipher the intro. On the other hand, if you’re just curious about the data, don’t stress about it and move forward!

How can you decipher a confusing introduction? What I’ve always recommended to my students is to use a highlighter to mark any unfamiliar words or phrases. Then, look them up one by one – Wikipedia might be your best choice for this step. If it helps, make a written glossary to fill in with definitions. Then, after you’ve looked up everything, go back through and read the introduction again. This might seem like a lot of work, but I guarantee it will make you sound smarter whenever you talk about this topic in the future!

Materials and methods are skippable for now

This section isn’t intended for reading from start to finish. For now, just read the subheadings and look up any unfamiliar terms. This is a rough overview of what experiments the researchers actually did to prove their points. Once you know these general categories, you can use this section like an appendix to return to later whenever you have questions while reading the results.

Some people use this section to decide whether or not the paper is worth reading. For instance, if you’re trying to learn about sexual behavior and you discover that the researchers did their experiments on fruit flies, you might decide that it’s not relevant to you. Just because a paper is published doesn’t mean you have to agree with it!

The results are the heart of the paper

Second to the abstract, the results section will probably be the next most painful part of the paper to read. And unfortunately, it’s the most important section. If you find the results section overwhelming, you could temporarily skip it and read the discussion section. But before you move forward, try at least to read and translate the subheadings into your own words.

When reading the results, there are multiple ways to tackle them. If you’re a visual person, start with the figures and their written descriptions. If you’re a numbers person, look for tables – if there are any. And if you’re a verbal person, go for the subheading titles. Whichever of these you go for first, take your time to understand all three of these pieces; they are the general overview of the results.

Once you’ve used the subheadings, figures and tables to generate an overview, you can try reading through the results from start to end. Alternatively, you could move on to the next section – the discussion – and then return to the individual sections of the results as they’re reached in the discussion.

Discussions and conclusions are OPINIONS

To be honest, many scientists ignore the discussion section because they prefer to interpret the results for themselves. Although this section should be as easy to read as the introduction, beware that it’s also where the author has the most free-reign to insert their opinions into the article.

Do you like and trust the paper? Then go ahead and read the conclusion. Authors use this space to interpret the evidence from the paper, and it can often provide the best insight into the authors’ motivations. This is where you’ll hear about their vision to improve human health, the world, etc.

However, authors also use this space to explain away inconsistencies, propose theories that maximize the cool-factor of their results, and weave fanciful stories together. So always read the conclusion with much more scrutiny than you would the introduction.

Confused? Try a review article instead

This is a lot to take in, and if you get completely overwhelmed reading your first paper, I want you to know that there is often another great option. Instead of troubling over the nuances of a single study, sometimes it’s best to start with a review article. Reviews should be easier to read, less biased, and are a great way to learn about the general topic. They might even help you discover better research articles to read than the one you’re currently tackling.

How do you find review articles? One thing you could try is including the word “review” in your google scholar search term. And if you’re searching pubmed, you can check the review box under “article type.”

Best wishes and I hope you have fun learning!

Why are research papers hard to read?

The first time I read a research paper was in college. Or, what I really mean to say is that I tried to read a research paper – it felt like my brain was going to melt.

Instead of finishing reading the scientific article, I dropped the class and switched majors.

If you’ve ever tried to read primary literature and felt completely overwhelmed, you are not alone. That confusing jumble of words, numbers and charts was practically designed to be complicated and boring. But why? Read on for a little history about academic literature and its current crisis.

An ancient history of elitism

Scholars across the world need a universal language. They need a way to collaborate and teach each other. Currently, that language is jargon-heavy English.

However, not long ago, all scientific literature was written in Latin – even though Latin had been “dead” for a thousand years. And before that, when the Roman Empire was thriving, and commoners spoke Latin, academics communicated in Greek instead…

Secret professional languages were historically used to protect the average person from learning about sensitive topics – such as medical diagnoses and religious dilemmas. Unfortunately, specialized language also locks away knowledge that only the educated class can access.

As Europe discovered during the Middle Ages, this strategy can backfire. After the Roman Empire collapsed, the ability to read and write in Greek was lost. Although Europeans still possessed books containing medical and scientific knowledge, they were useless without a translator.

In this way, elite scholars helped bring about the Dark Ages… because they didn’t record their knowledge in a way that the average person could understand.

But it’s getting even worse

Perhaps scientists switched to English in the 18th century because they wanted to make their findings more accessible – but that gesture has been lost on today’s researchers.

In an era when books, the media and presidents are all using quantifiably simpler English, scientists are using increasingly complex English. That’s not just an opinion: Researchers examined hundreds of thousands of abstracts from research papers written between 1881 and 2015 and found that they have become less readable over time.

How are they less readable? Words are esoteric and contain more syllables – and sentences are longer.

Not only that, but a smaller study of neuroimaging research articles found that the more important a paper is (published in journals with a higher impact factor), the less readable it is.

It’s not that scientists are trying to confuse the general public… they aren’t thinking about the average person at all. Scientists write with a narrow audience in mind, and they use highly specialized and complex language to signal to reviewers that they are experts in their field.

We’ve all heard that the English language is evolving. However, it appears that scientific English is diverging – evolving towards increased complexity.

Lack of quality control

A quick aside: If you can’t make sense of what you’re reading, there’s also a good chance it simply doesn’t make sense. An increasingly large number of research papers are being published despite having terrible grammar.

Why the flood of poorly written papers?

For one reason, there’s no reward for a well-written paper. So long as the English is passable, further improvements on a paper’s readability will not help it get published in a better journal.

Others might point to the growing numbers of publications by non-native English speakers.

However, one of the worst problems is a spiraling number of for-profit journals popping up which publish research articles that may not have even been reviewed. A recent estimate suggests that up to 400,000 articles were published last year in these journals.

Everyone suffers

Scientific research is accelerating, and the world is drowning in papers that will go mostly unread because they are too complex or poorly written (or a combination of both). How does this impact us?

Authors suffer because, after years of hard work, their final masterpieces often go unnoticed. Most researchers avoid the limelight and rely on reputation and the media to spread their ideas. But the media covers only a tiny fraction of scientific discoveries – and they often mangle the findings.

Researchers in other fields also suffer because knowledge becomes trapped within fields… like neighboring villages that cannot communicate or trade because they speak different dialects.

And most importantly, the public suffers.

Instead of struggling to interpret research papers, most people rely on the news to deliver the most *important* scientific updates. Unfortunately, media only covers sensational findings, which often disagree with numerous reports methodically proving the opposite point.

Then, the topic is forgotten until a year or two later when a new sensational article is published that claims something entirely different. What’s the best diet to extend your life? How much alcohol is safe to drink?… The way media covers scientific research leaves the public with no choice but to mistrust scientists.

So… if you’re wondering why research papers are so hard to read, you should first congratulate yourself for your desire to read them and judge their evidence for yourself. Most people don’t even try.

Now we just need to get the message out to scientists that we are thirsting for knowledge – it just needs to be slightly more palatable.

This is the first of a series of articles about how to critically read research papers. Stay tuned for more!

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