You can’t trust science news, especially on the Internet. So a few years back, I started reading actual scientific papers. As a science fiction writer trying his best to do his research, I felt this had to be part of my world-building process.
I won’t lie to you. At first, this was difficult. Very difficult.
But reading scientific papers is a skill, and with patience and practice, it’s a skill anyone can learn. So if you want to go straight to the source for your scientific knowledge, here are a few tips that’ll make the reading process easier.
- Begin at the End: Start by skipping straight to the conclusion (which is sometimes called the discussion). This may seem counterintuitive, but trust me: the rest of the paper will make a lot more sense if you know what it’s leading to.
- Make a Vocab List: Next, skim the body of the paper searching for words you don’t understand. Write yourself a vocabulary list and go look up the definitions of your vocab words before trying to read the paper in full. (This, by the way, is where many of my Sciency Words posts come from).
- Beware of Familiar-Seeming Words: Some words like metal or volatile have weird, alternative definitions in certain scientific fields. If you suspect an ordinary, innocent-looking word might not mean what it normally means, go ahead and add it to your vocab list. To find the definition you need, try googling something like “metal definition astronomy.”
- Skip the Math: Don’t panic if you’re bad at math. Unless you’re an actual scientist doing actual scientific research, you can usually skip the math parts. For my purposes as a science fiction writer, I feel it’s enough to know something can be modeled with a mathematical formula; it’s typically not essential for me to know what that formula is.
- Teach a Friend: When you’re done, try to explain what you’ve learned to a friend. You may need a really loyal, really patient friend for this, but trying to explain something in your own words is an effective way to solidify new knowledge in your brain.
Again, it takes practice to get good at reading these kinds of papers. The more you do it, the quicker it becomes and the more you’ll feel you comprehend.
Of course reading and understanding a scientific paper is one thing. Recognizing scientific fraud is another, so click here to check out my previous post on the kinds of red flags to watch out for.
And tune in tomorrow for the story of my first attempt to read a scientific paper and the moment of realization when all that scientific gobbledygook starting making sense.