You are on page 1of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM


Authors

Home
Articles

News
Find Jobs

Journals

Career

Topics

Careers

Forum For EmployersEmployer

Resources

Members

Profiles

Librarians

Advertisers

Search

Graduate

Booklets

Programs

Careers

About Careers

Features

FOLLOW SCIENCE CAREERS

SHARE

Search Jobs


Credit: N.Hendrickson / iStockphoto

How to read a
scientific paper
By Adam Ruben

Jan. 20, 2016

Our columnist
describes how he
learned to read—and
actually understand—
journal articles

Enter keywords, locations or job
types to start searching for your new
science career.
Search


Register

Advanced Search

Top articles in Careers
Want a letter? You write it for
me
BY ROGER S. DAY

JAN. 7, 2016

The M.D.-Ph.D. double agent

http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042

Page 1 of 12

org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 2 of 12 . TSAI DEC. The instructor would ask a question. 2015 Science made me a better parent Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article. read every single sentence. still no idea. and then discover that I hadn’t learned a single thing. She’d ask a simpler question. 2015 Tweets by @ScienceCareers just wasn’t working for me. I was in college. And something BY IGNACIO AMIGO DEC. I http://www. 10. 2:09 PM BY JESSICA W. I’d have no idea what she was asking. I’d attend class armed with exactly one piece of knowledge: I knew I had read the paper. But I’d read the damn paper! It reminded me of kindergarten.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS journal articles 1/22/16. 2015 A scientist goes to kindergarten BY ADAM RUBEN NOV. But if you had asked me a simple question about the book’s contents—What kind of animal is Wilbur? How did Encyclopedia Brown know that Bugs Meany wasn’t really birdwatching?—I couldn’t have answered it.sciencemag. A few weeks into the seminar. taking a seminar course in which we had to read and discuss a new paper each week. I remember my first experience with these ultracongested and aggressively bland manuscripts so dense that scientists are sometimes caught eating them to stay regular. Every week I would sit with the article. 18. when I would feel proud after reading a book above my grade level. 3.

To avoid interruptions from friends encouraging alcohol consumption.sciencemag. And I thought. But this time.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 3 of 12 . if I didn’t understand a word in a sentence. of course. I actually understood it. I wasn’t going to read another paper without understanding it. Wrong.” Somehow I had always glossed over this word. I get it. one of those dusty academic hidey-holes only populated by the most wretched forms of life. Not just the regular library. as friends do in college. It took me more than 2 hours to read a three-page paper. which are. insects and postdocs. “Wow. but the obscure little biology library. I really get it. I forbade myself from proceeding to the next sentence until I looked it up in a textbook and then reread the sentence until it made sense. I sat in an obscure anteroom with no foot traffic. I specifically remember this happening with the word “exogenous. To avoid interruptions from cellphone calls. as though it was probably unimportant to its sentence. 2:09 PM A few weeks into the seminar. Most importantly. I decided enough was enough. I eliminated all other distractions.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS 1/22/16. So I took that week’s journal article to the library. I placed the paper on a large empty desk.” http://www. I made sure it was 1999.

” After all. ” If you’re at the beginning of your career in science.” And I thought. Fear. This is the stage when you realize. “This can’t be too difficult.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS 1/22/16. And that’s all a scientific paper is.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 4 of 12 . look up the acronyms. 2:09 PM really get it. “It’s not damaging to drink eight cups of coffee a day” or “There are plenty of tenuretrack jobs. It may help you to familiarize yourself with the 10 Stages of Reading a Scientific Paper: 1. you’ve been reading words for decades. aren’t I?” “ Every week I would sit with the article.sciencemag.” So you slow down a little. “Uh … I don’t think all of these are words. and review your work several times. I’m going to have to do this again. you may be struggling with the same problem. Congratulations: You have now read the title. Optimism. parse the jargon. right? Words? 2. http://www. Sound out the syllables. “Oh crap.” you tell yourself with a smile—in the same way you tell yourself. and then discover that I hadn’t learned a single thing. read every single sentence.

If only you had one of those buzzer buttons from workplaces in the 1960s. Why.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 5 of 12 . 5. and you could just press it and say. 3. Corner-cutting. You begin to realize that you should have budgeted much more time for this whole undertaking. What the hell? Was that abstract supposed to explain something? Why was the average sentence 40 words long? Why were there so many acronyms? Why did the authors use the word “characterize” five times? 6.” Okay.” If only there was a compact version of the same article. à la Spaceballs. Let’s do this. 2:09 PM read the title. Bafflement. did you think you could read the article in a single bus ride? If only you had more time.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS 1/22/16. oh why. short version. “Phoebe. something on the order of 250 or fewer words. cancel my January.” that’s been in your head all day? How would your life change if you http://www. a smartphone for ducks? How would that work? What would they use it for? And what was that Paul Simon lyric. all for me? Blessed be the editors of scientific journals who knew that no article is comprehensible. Why. so they asked their writers to provide. “the short.sciencemag. What if there was. Regret. printed in bold at the beginning of the paper… 4. like. what’s this? An abstract. the one from “You Can Call Me Al. Distraction.

Let’s just point those pupils at the dried ink on the page. right! “Don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard. yup-aroo. 8. It’s not the same as store-bought bread. but then it might go stale. Realization that 15 minutes have gone by and you haven’t progressed to the next sentence. We write them in a highly specialized vernacular that even http://www. We work on them for months or even years. All righty. Genuine contemplation of a career in the humanities. Determination. right? Right? What a strange document a scientific journal article is. Oh. Shame about David Bowie. HOW COULD ANY HUMAN BRAIN PRODUCE SUCH SENTENCES? 10. Really gonna read this time. readin’ words is what you do. Rage. and … 9. Really gonna do it. 2:09 PM would your life change if you owned a bread maker? You’d have to buy yeast. Academic papers written on nonscientific subjects are easy to understand.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS 1/22/16. yuppers. Yup.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 6 of 12 . Can you put coffee in a humidifier? 7.” Is Paul Simon still alive? You should check Wikipedia. it’s just not. Sometimes you confuse him with Paul McCartney or Paul Shaffer.sciencemag. Is yeast expensive? You could make your own bread every few days.

sciencemag. but sometimes our subdiscipline is so hyperspecific that we need a million acronyms.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS 1/22/16. And sometimes http://www.95. Good luck. Or a People editorial about Jimmy Kimmel that could only be published following a rigorous review process by experts in the field of Jimmy Kimmel. Can you imagine if mainstream magazine articles were like science papers? Picture a Time cover story with 48 authors. Do you know what you’d call a magazine article that required intellectual scrutiny and uninterrupted neural commitment to figure out what it’s even trying to say? You’d call it a badly written article. 2:09 PM specialized vernacular that even most other scientists don’t share. We’re trying to write articles comprehensibly. And we’re sorry. like $34. a parenthetical listing of the company that produced the object and the city where that company is based. So for those new to reading journals. welcome.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 7 of 12 . for the privilege of reading them. Or a piece in The Economist that required. We so readily accept their inaccessibility that we have to start “journal clubs” in the hopes that our friends might understand them and summarize them for us. after every object described. We place them behind a paywall and charge something ridiculous.

caredit. Social Sciences. Africa. Late Career. 2:09 PM million acronyms. Other. Industry.D. 15 Jan 2016 Make a powerful interview impact by controlli ng the http://www. Academic.1126/science. Americas. Government. Postdoc. Quackberry. And sometimes we’re attempting to sound like good scientists by copying the tone of every article we’ve read. Biomedical. Physical Sciences.  Twitter Related Articles Experim ental Error Index More from Careers Academi c H-1Bs by the numbers Elsewhe re in Science. Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School. Early Career. Europe.a1600012 Adam Ruben Adam Ruben. is a practicing scientist and the author of Surviving Your Stupid. Midcareer.sciencemag. Life Sciences. Posted in: Experimental Error.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 8 of 12 . Engineering. Undergraduate. Graduate. United States DOI: 10.. Ph. That’s what you’d call the smartphone for ducks. And sometimes we’re just writing badly.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS 1/22/16. Asia-Pacific.

sciencemag. reading scientific papers is really not hard at all as they have a standard format. 2:09 PM ng the intangibl es Comments Community 1 ! Login ⤤ Share ♥ Recommend 1 Sort by Best Join the discussion… graddirector • a day ago I can sympathize somewhat remembering some of my struggles in grad school.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…zine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 9 of 12 . That said.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS 1/22/16. I think the biggest problem that new scientists have is a lack of background knowledge to put things into context and often a limited vocabulary (like the see more 5△ hvsk ▽ • • Reply • Share › a day ago Uhhhhh--Where is the "How To" part of this article? Or is the title just a click-teaser? BTW. 3△ ▽ • Reply • Share › Dylan Bargteil > hvsk • a day ago http://www. Most are even pretty well written I think and the best tell very compelling stories. reading technical information is a skill. and once you master it. standard English syntax and punctuation counts.

5△ ▽ • Reply • Share › Ratul Minhaz > hvsk • 2 hours ago Just another clickbait blog post. the "How To" was nonexistent. △ ▽ • Reply • Share › Clint Springer • 3 hours ago While I found this article entertaining. Being a real glutton for punishment I would grab a thesis or two that took the author years to whip into that form and expect to read and grok it straight out like a science fiction novel.sciencemag. 1△ ▽ • Reply • Share › Samantha Atkins • 11 hours ago YAY. 2:09 PM a day ago Agreed – this was just a distraction from reading a journal article. I was hoping to share it with my students but I think this would just discourage them. 1△ ▽ • Reply • Share › A cena col Cenobita • 3 hours ago "Exogenous" is a rather common word. The problem isn't science. Ah.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…ine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 10 of 12 . Didn't expect this from people in the field of science though.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS • 1/22/16. the arrogance and optimism of youth. http://www. it isn't just me. it's not a "jargon" at all.

✓ http://www. We will also send you a newsletter digest with the latest published articles.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS 1/22/16. △ ▽ • Reply • Share › love_as_laughter • 3 hours ago my way: just read the abstract and have a look at the figures and try to understand the article by yourself.sciencemag. — I Dune — wouldn't feed your … "Many … So long Modern-day suckers! Sex … British are … 2 comments • 2 days 7 comments • 3 days ago ago ✉ Byronic Fate Zina Ciceklic — Good. if you cannot. go through the text to find the answer to what you have not understood. now we … — British genomes … Subscribe d Add Disqus to your site Add Disqus Add ) Privacy Science 22 Januar y 2016 Get Our Newsletters ASTRONO MY Number 9 SCIENCE AND POLICY Subscribe Today Montreal institute A Science Enter your email address below to receive email announcements from Science.000-year-old eat chocolate massacre … 7 comments • 2 days 6 comments • 2 days ago ago Betty T.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…ine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 11 of 12 . 2:09 PM The problem isn't science. △ ▽ • Reply • Share › ALSO ON SCIENCE WHAT'S THIS? Why dogs can’t 10. it's what you've studied in high school and what were your common readings at the time.

CHORUS. OARE. 2:09 PM going 'open' to accelerat e science SCIENTIFI C COMMUNI TY DATA CHECK: Tracking first jobs to measure the impact of research funding ECOLOGY Standoff imperils Oregon refuge subscription offers a powerful blend of information and community that you can't get anywhere else. Pages 348a-418 1/22/16. Issue 6271. Terms of Service Privacy Policy Copyright http://www. CrossRef and COUNTER. CLOCKSS.How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS Vol 351. AAAS is a partner of HINARI.K.sciencemag. PatientInform.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-p…ine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=scientificpaper-2042 Page 12 of 12 . First Name SCIENCE AND POLICY Biden seeks clear course for his cancer moonsho t Debate sharpens over U. AGORA. threat to leave Europe Journals Leadership Team members Work at AAAS Advertising kits Custom publishing Science Daily News Science News This Week Science Editor's Choice First Release Notification Science Careers Job Seeker Email address Last Name Table of Contents Advertise Science Table of Contents Email Address SCIENCE AND POLICY About us ✓ ✓ ✓ ✓ ✓ ✓ For subscribers Site license info For members Subscribe Today Sign up today International Help Chinese Japanese Access & subscriptions Reprints & permissions Contact us Stay Connected     © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights Reserved.