How to Read a Scientific Paper

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.

8 Responses to How to Read a Scientific Paper

  1. Excellent advice! When I was in grad school, I learned to read the abstract, then the conclusion (or discussion, or whatever was at the end), and then selectively extract information from the rest of the paper. (Most of the time I wasn’t all that interested in the details of the methodology section unless it was very similar to the research I was doing.)

    I generally don’t read scientific papers on everything I’m interested in. But sometimes I want the details and exert the effort, and I sometimes do it when there’s controversy about the way the paper’s being portrayed in the press.

    On science news in general, I find it pays to subscribe to skeptical scientists who aren’t shy about pointing out any problems with science news stories (or some actual papers for that matter).

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      It definitely helps to pay attention to those vocal skeptics. Phil Plait’s Twitter feed is one of my favorites for fact checking astronomy news.

      As I’ve read more and more of these papers, I think I’ve come to do that selective extraction thing, especially when I’m just researching for a blog post.

      But for research that’s more science fiction-related, I’ll force myself to read the whole paper. You never know what little details might turn out to be great plot points or story ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Phil Plait is excellent for astronomy. Also Sean Carroll for physics, the Neurosckeptic for neuroscience, John Hawks for paleo-anthropology, and Michael Shermer for all around skepticism. For biology, I find PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne good (although they are strident atheists so you have to filter through those posts). Massimo Pigliucci, an ex-biologist also occasionally weighs in on nutty biology claims (although again you have to filter through a lot of philosophy posts).

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        Thanks! I’ll keep those names in mind for the future.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Juneta says:

    LOL, good advice but sounds like a of work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Yeah, it can be. Thing is I know there are other people who want to get into reading these kinds of papers, so I wanted to put this out there for them. When I started, I couldn’t find any good advice on how to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My dear friend, the most scientific paper I read is your blog… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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