Reading and understanding peer-reviewed journal articles (also called primary scientific literature), are skills that require time and practice to develop. Thankfully, journal articles tend to follow a predictable structure: abstract, introduction, methods, results, interpretations, and conclusions.
Papers start with an abstract (a short synopsis of the paper) followed by an introduction that provides relevant background information and sets up the question or questions investigated in the study. The methods section describes how the study was conducted. Results are most often separated from interpretations, reflecting that good scientists are very careful to delineate the differences between data collected in the course of the research (which don’t change) from the author’s interpretations of what those data mean. The interpretations of data are based on data from the study as well as data, interpretations, and insights from other studies. Conclusions can be part of the interpretation section or a separate section that highlights major findings and summarizes the main points of the article.
To practice reading and understanding primary literature, read (a) papers(s) from the RMBL Pollination Research page or from the Ipomosis Research Group page and answer the following questions to organize your thoughts. Be sure to look up any words you don’t know and write down questions you have from the article(s).
Guiding Questions for Reading Scientific Articles
- Abstract and Introduction: What broad disciplinary topic does the paper address? Why was the research conducted? What is the paper’s primary hypothesis? Record any terms you do not understand.
- Methods: When and where was the research conducted? Which techniques were used to gather data? How were the data analyzed? Do any methods require further explanation? If so, explain.
- Results: What are the primary findings or trends? Are the conclusions supported by the data? Did the authors describe any unexpected findings? Describe the presentations of data (e.g. graphs, tables, figures, etc.) that were effective and those that were not.
- Discussion: Was the primary hypothesis supported? Were there any unexplained results? Do the authors suggest further research? Describe alternative conclusions that were explored.
After reading a(n) article(s), outline a few questions that you think should be addressed next. Outline an experiment that could be conducted to answer one of your questions.