How To Read Scientific Articles Trilogy Part 1: Breaking Down The Primary Research Paper.


As a science student, whether it is for your assignment or for your undergraduate thesis, we cannot escape the fate of analyzing primary research articles. It may first sound interesting and novel but you will soon find yourself googling the extravagant and technical vocabularies as if you are learning a new language. So, how can we break down the undefeatable monster? My advice: practice, practice, and practice.

Before going into the details, here is my experience with paper analysis. I also struggled with literature analysis but I was lucky enough to get a sense of primary research paper prior going to university. In my last year of high school, we were given an article to analyze for a month, which seemed so short to us because the wording and content were so peculiar (in fact, the experience is so unique that I still remember its content after reading 200+ publications). We spent days trying to understand the paper and with several months of practices, I felt more comfortable reading them but the grasp of idea was still weak. Going into university and joining my lab, I had opportunities writing grants and publications in which numerous papers needed to be read (On average, 7 papers were read per day over two weeks for the grants and 70 journals were read for my publications). Over the course of 2.5 years, I developed some techniques for breaking down the content:

1.Do NOT Scare Yourself.

            For many of us, the mentality is a key in reading journal articles, especially when you just started learning the process. Just like doing other tasks, having a clear mindset will help you stay focused, which is particularly crucial for reading the large content-based article. You sometimes need to remember a lot of information in just one section (E.g. Introduction) that will help you understanding other sections (e.g. Discussion). Thus, having a wondering mind will only let you focus on scaring yourself than remembering facts that will hinder your productivity.

  1. Read And Understand the Abstract Before Moving Onto Other Sections.

In my opinion, abstract is the most important section to start analyzing a paper. They contain a summary of the entire paper and it is a great mind map guiding your thoughts while reading the paper. The formats of abstracts vary from paper to paper but the sequence of topics is mostly the same. They will first start with a brief background information and their goal, in which sometimes the significance of the project will be discussed. This is followed by describing the tools and techniques along with the results produced. At the end, the authors will end the abstract with implications of the results. As you can see, this is exactly how a primary research paper is organized. Thus understanding the abstract will help you a lot in understanding the main message.

  1. Ignore All The Drug Dosages And Company Names In Materials And Methods Sections Unless You Need Them.

            One of the most confusing part of a paper is its materials and methods. They are filled with dosage and followed by company names and location, which can disrupt your reading process. Unless you are trying to develop a protocol, I suggest you should ignore all of them when you read the section for the first time. You want to get a general picture first before going into the details, (and sometimes you may not need to going into that much detail).

  1. Read It Thoroughly First And Then Create A Summary Chart For Each Section.

When you are new to scientific paper, I suggest read an article at least twice. First time is for highlight and get the whole picture, second time is when you dig in depth of the article. When you are making notes, keep in mind of several important questions (I guarantee you will have one of them to answer for your assignment or thesis):

  1. Why does the authors want to examine this XXX? This is where you want to express the significance of the study.
  2. What was the purpose of this article?
  3. How the techniques they used correctly reflect what they want to measure?
  4. If to summary into one sentence, what is the take home message of this article?
  5. What are the future suggested experiments as follow ups of this study?

When you can answer the above questions, you are most likely prepared for the assignment or thesis. There are a tons more on the internet, feel free to google more and practice!


Now I have done part 1 of the trilogy. I hope this article will help many of you for your studies and in the next two parts, I’ll be discussing about how to analyze review articles and how to write a thesis paper/publication. Good luck!


2 thoughts on “How To Read Scientific Articles Trilogy Part 1: Breaking Down The Primary Research Paper.

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