A Beginner’s Guide To Reading Scientific Papers

 One major step from the sixth form to university, I have found particularly difficult to grapple with, is the amount of reading. In school and college it was expected that you read and study primarily from textbooks deemed at the appropriate level for the curriculum. In university however, there is less of a distinction. For those of you in the sixth form who may have been tasked with completing an Extended Project, the words ‘Literature Review’ may strike fear and anxiety into your hearts, but fear not, because you are not alone. Reading academic papers is an art form that takes years of practice to fully master, but once you are able to see past the confusing jargon and endless reams of data tables, interpreting academic papers will become your greatest asset in essay writing.

When laden with the arduous task of writing a scientific essay, the academic literature on the topic at hand should be your first port of call. The literature opens the door to ‘real life science’, giving you the opportunity to read first-hand about the experimental and theoretical investigations carried out by real scientists who often spend their life’s work on these studies. The task of reading and understanding these papers can easily be overwhelming, but from my experience, getting the most out of them can be accomplished by following these simple guidelines. Visit our science tutor page for additional guidance.




TIP 1: Get your Reading Goals

Before you begin reading anything, familiarise yourself with the aim of your reading; whether you are reading for general interest, revision or if you are reading for a specific essay, you will need to have a goal in mind while you plough through each paper. Keeping these goals in mind while reading, acts as a mental filter for the vast amounts of information you will be taking in. This will keep your notes focused and prevent you getting side-tracked by obsessing over irrelevant pieces of information.


TIP 2: The Abstract is your friend

The abstract of an academic paper is essentially a brief summary of the contents of the article. It is the equivalent to the blurb on the back of a novel or a trailer to a movie except the abstract goes further- it tells you how the story ends. It condenses the main conclusions made in the article into a short but sweet little paragraph. From this, you will be able to gain an overview of the entire text and can use this to decide whether or not it’s relevant to your topic.


TIP 3: Take it bit by bit

When reading the main bulk of the paper, particularly the discussion, never attempt to read it in one go- this is a painful and soul crushing experience. Instead, take the discussion in bite size chunks and give yourself time to digest what you read. If the paper has sub-headings, use these to break up the reading. I find that the most efficient way of reading through a long piece of text is to read, highlight, and make brief notes alongside the text. This way, you can immediately record a response to what you are reading and come back to it later.


TIP 4: The Internet is your sharpest tool

The scientists who write up their investigations and publish them in papers sadly don’t keep in mind the student when they throw around their convoluted terminology, specialist terms and coded abbreviations. When reading papers like this, it can feel like you are looking at a foreign language, but help is at hand in the form of the universal translator- the internet. As you read through a paper, and you come across a term or concept you don’t recognize, use a reliable search engine to find out the meaning. However, be cautious when doing this as often websites can be misinformed, so cross-referencing information is key to obtaining accurate explanations to terms you don’t understand.


And that’s it! These four straightforward tips have kept me sane when burdened with further reading. So if you follow these simple guidelines, reading and interpreting academic papers will no longer feel so impossible and you may even find yourself enjoying writing that literature review.


Additional resources:

Art and Science: Beyond the Balance
Big Hands Big
Biology IB Resources

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