Science and Word

Simple English for Complex Research

How to read a research paper

Whether you’re a student or a self-motivated fact-checker, 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!

1 Comment

  1. Hello Genevieve,

    I have just begun my PhD studies this week (it has been 5 years since I completed my Masters), and I found a couple of papers I have read so far difficult to understand. I have always believed in writing for my audience to understand; however, the articles were “messing with my mind.” I actually questioned myself and my understanding; then, I decided to search and see if others were having the same type of experience. I happy to see that I am not alone.
    I will use your suggestions. Thank you for writing both articles. Whew


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