HowTo: read scientific papers!

One of the very early lessons for me when I became a grad student (which also gave me quite a jolt at that time), is that the way you read the scientific papers is quite different from reading other technical documents — say, a text book or monograph.

Initially, I could not figure out how my advisor could read any paper so fast and get the gist so precise; and, sometimes make pronouncements about the soundness or silliness of some of the reported results based on my reports — without even looking at the paper; it looked like magic till I started paying close attention, and realised that his flipping the papers this way and that, and reading a few sentences here and there, and looking at this figure and that, is not all that random as it seemed; he looked at the title, then abstract, then conclusions, then the introduction, and the figures in between; he sometimes looked at some sentences and the references listed in them; occasionally, he read a paragraph or two from the core of the paper — formulation, results and discussion; and,  that was sufficient for him to make up his mind as to the worthiness of pursuing the paper; still, I do not remember a single case in which his judgement was off the mark.

Of course, there is a very large repository of information at the back of one’s mind on which one relies when reading a technical paper; that is what helps greatly in reaching conclusions fast; however, even with the availability of such information, it is the order which plays a crucial role in making the decisions faster.

Via Coturnix, I saw a blogpost at Blogrivet, which gives almost similar order for reading papers:

Scientific papers are broken into sections that are best read out of order. The headings for each section may vary from publication to publication, but the general concept is the same. Here I’ve identified each of those sections in the order that you should read them.

1. Abstract (…) 2. Charts and graphs (…) 3. Conclusion (…) 4. Introduction (…) 5. Discussion (…)

Bill, the author of the post (and the blog, Blogrivet) goes on to give detailed instructions for each section by taking an example paper from PLOS as a case study. A wonderful post! Have fun!

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4 Responses to “HowTo: read scientific papers!”

  1. Bill K. Says:

    Thanks for the link. I’m glad you liked the post. As for your advisor, the profs I’m most impressed with are the ones who can look at a Methods section and immediately determine whether the paper is any good or not. That definitely requires a large repository of knowledge and experience.

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Bill,

    You are welcome; I liked the idea of a post to go along with the tips a lot.


  3. student Says:

    thanks for sharing your experiences and your references.

  4. student Says:

    btw, the link to BlogRivet doesn’t seem to be accessible anymore. if you have a cached version, i’d like to read it ( thanks!

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