Every so often on the news, you will read or hear the words ‘Scientists have discovered…’ or ‘a group from [insert country here] have reported this effect with their new cancer drug’ for example.
But have you ever thought – where do all these science headlines come from?
The scientific paper.
Now I want my blog to be for everyone – that includes tips and advice for my fellow PhD students and science news and insights into a scientific life and much more for YOU the general public too! I want everyone to learn something when they visit my blog, but most of all I want to help make scientific research more accessible to non-scientists – even if it is only a little bit. So other than introducing you to different techniques and things I get up to in the lab from time to time as well as showcasing many awesome scientists from around the world to break down the associated stereotype – I thought that maybe I could introduce you to different aspects of the scientific world. So there is no better place to start than with something that all scientists aspire to achieve – the publication!
To a lot of you who are reading this article, the thought of a scientific paper is perhaps a little bit alien to you or even slightly terrifying, but I hope that by the end of Part One of this guide you will know what a scientific paper is, where you can find them and how you can read them – even with non scientific background!
Plus I’m in the process of writing my very first scientific paper and I think it would be super cool if you could all read it if and when it gets accepted so I can actually talk about my research in more detail with you guys then 😛 !
So let’s get stuck in!
First of all, what is a scientific paper?
The world of scientific research is a competition. A race to the finish line where you have to be the winner – as there are no prizes for being the second one to have this new idea or prove some new mechanism! So most of your research careers, you are sworn to secrecy about the details of what you are actually doing in the lab until your scientific paper is accepted and you can share your research with the rest of the scientific world!
Scientific papers are the heart of the science community; they’re one of the major ways scientists communicate their results and ideas to one another, and contain the most up to date information about a field – obviously depending on the date of publication!
So, a scientific paper is an article that is bringing together all those experiments you have been doing in the lab for the past 2 or 3, or even for the past 10 years to so, and making one complete story, and the proof that you have shown what you said you have!
There are two main types of scientific paper; the primary research article, which is a report of new research about a specific question and the one I’m going to talk about in more detail in this post, and the review article, which don’t present new information but are a summary of multiply primary research papers to give a sense of consensus and unanswered questions within a particular topic at that time.
Where will I find scientific papers?
These manuscripts get published in scientific journals, and there are hundreds and hundreds of these out there! Some are very specific in the articles they publish like the Journal of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Research is only going to publish articles about that topic for example, whereas others are for a more broad audience. Each journal also has what we call an impact factor – which is based upon how many times the articles published in that journal get quoted or cited elsewhere and of course, more people will see it – hence the ‘impact’! So for example, the more specific journals out there are going to have lower impact factors generally speaking compared to the broader ones as there are going to be fewer people interested in a smaller niche. As a scientist you want to get your paper published in a journal with the highest impact factor you can, so for me in the field of biology I am aiming for the likes of Cell and Nature.
Why bother reading scientific papers?
So before I venture much further into this, I feel I need to try and make you care a little bit about why you should even bother reading these in the first place – except that you all obviously want to read my upcoming paper hah!
I started off this blog post by introducing media headlines that you heard as a result of these papers. However, there is a lot of controversy surrounding how accurately the media reports science and scientific discoveries. Now I am not saying that what you hear as you watch the evening news is wrong – it just might not be the complete truth sometimes! So I am a huge advocate for teaching everyone how to find the original source of these headlines and understanding them so you, the general public, can make your own informed opinions about science 🙂
Also, a huge amount of scientific research is funded by the public so surely it is only right to show you what we have done with that money right?
What will you find in a scientific paper?
Each scientific paper is split into 6 sections which each have a unique purpose. They are the abstract, the introduction, the materials and methods section, the results, the discussion and the references.
The abstract is a summary of the entire paper. It usually highlights the main question or questions the authors investigated, provides the key results of their experiments, and gives an overview of the authors’ conclusions. Reading the abstract will help you decide if the article was what you were looking for, or not, without spending a long time reading the whole paper. Abstracts are usually accessible for free either online at journals’ websites or in scientific literature databases.
As the name suggests, the introduction gives background information about the topic of the paper, but also sets out the specific questions to be addressed by the authors. The quantity and thoroughness of the background information will depend on both the author and the guidelines for that specific journal.
Reading the introduction is a test of whether or not you are ready to read the rest of the paper; if the introduction doesn’t make sense to you, then the rest of the paper won’t either as the paper is bringing new information to build on what you have read in the introduction. If you find yourself baffled by the introduction, try going to other sources for information about the topic before you tackle the rest of the paper. Good sources can include a textbook; online tutorials, reviews, or explanations; or one of those review articles I mentioned earlier.
Materials and Methods
The ‘How to’ manual of the scientific paper. The materials and methods section gives the technical details of how the experiments were carried out, including the types of controls used, how long each experiment took and where unusual resources (like a bacterial strain or a publicly available data set) were obtained. Reading the methods section is helpful in understanding exactly what the authors did.
The results section is the real meat of a primary research article; it contains all the data from the experiments. The figures, or pictures, contain the majority of the data. The accompanying text contains verbal descriptions of the pieces of data the authors feel were most critical. The writing may also explain how the new data fits in with the previous findings you read about in the introduction. So, to get the most out of the results section, make sure to spend ample time thoroughly looking at all the graphs, pictures, and tables, and reading their accompanying description underneath the figure telling you what all the graphs and numbers mean called a legend!
The discussion section is the authors’ opportunity to give you their opinions. It is where they draw conclusions about the results. They may choose to put their results in the context of previous findings and offer theories or new hypotheses that explain the body of knowledge in the field. Or the authors may comment on new questions and avenues of exploration that their results give rise to. The purpose of discussion sections in papers is to allow the exchange of ideas between scientists. As such, it is critical to remember that the discussions are the authors’ interpretations and not necessarily facts. However, this section is often a good place to get ideas about what kind of research questions are still unanswered in the field.
Throughout the article, the authors will refer to information from other papers. These citations – which I mentioned earlier when talking about impact factor – are all listed in the references section, sometimes referred to as the bibliography. Both review articles and primary research articles, as well as books or other relevant sources, can be found in the references section. Regardless of the type of source, there will always be enough information (authors, title, journal name, publication date, etc.) for you to find the source at a library or online. This makes the reference section incredibly useful for broadening your own reading. If you’re reading a paragraph in the current paper and want more information on the content, you should always try to find and read the articles cited in that paragraph.
How do I read a scientific paper?
Anyone can read a scientific paper, you just have to know how!
Reading a scientific paper is a completely different process than reading an article about science in a blog or newspaper. Not only do you read the sections in a different order than they’re presented, but you should also probably take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go look up other papers from the citations for some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first, especially if you’re not a scientist. But be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience – that’s if you want to try it again after the first experience!
You should definitely give reading a scientific paper a go, but reading these things is a bit of a chore even for an experienced eye, so watch out for Part Two where I want to discuss new ways of making them more understandable to everyone! But for now, please stick with me when I introduce a step by step guide of how to read a scientific paper if you are a non-scientist, or perhaps even if you are!
Step 1: Identify vocabulary you don’t understand!
Scientific papers are full of jargon so you are probably going to have to write down every single word that you don’t understand and then you’re going to have to look them all up! Yes, I know it is a huge pain but you won’t understand the paper if you don’t understand the vocabulary! Books or obviously Google would be a good place to start or even YouTube as there are hundreds of really cool videos out there explaining different scientific concepts!
Step 2: Read the Introduction before anything else!
This is going to give you the background of the topic. If this part doesn’t interest you then, the new data that is part of this paper is not going to interest you either. It will also help you identify the BIG question that the scientists are answering. Again, if that doesn’t take your fancy then it is not worth your time and effort understanding and reading the paper!
Step 3: Tackle the results section!
Only once you are comfortable with the background information are you ready to give reading the results a try! Again there are going to be units and numbers you are not familiar with but you can look at the graphs and see if levels have gone up or down in response to certain conditions and get a feel for this new exciting research! Try to draw your own conclusions from what you saw and think about what it means when you compared it to everything you read in the introduction.
Step 4: Time to read the discussion.
You have made your own conclusions now! Do they match up with the authors’? Take a read to see what they make of their results. But for people just entering the field, discussions are a good place to get a glimpse of what the current competing theories and hypotheses are.
These are truly some very basic steps for absolute beginners in reading scientific papers! There is going to be a lot of other jargon like stats and p values and asterisks across the graphs and the words ‘statistically significant’ that probably won’t mean a lot to you either. But in truth, they probably don’t matter for a non scientist trying to get to grips with just reading about some research.
Now I’m not going to lie – reading a scientific paper is quite overwhelming even for the most experienced of researchers but this is where we need to change that so the public can find the information they want to as well because lets face it not everyone will understand the jargon. So I’ve recently stumbled across a different idea for these online papers – not sure how long it has been going on but it was the first I saw of it a few weeks ago. And I thought it was a great idea and can definitely make the scientific paper more comprehensible for the general public – especially when I believe it is a scientists duty to be able to explain what they have done and why they have done it to anyone they meet on the street! So, stick around for part 2 of How YOU can read a scientific paper to learn about new ways of digesting these manuscripts without all the jargon!
If you are a non-scientist reading my blog, I have a challenge for you! Please just have a go at reading a scientific paper – or maybe just try a review article first like this one or simply the introduction of a paper like this one! You don’t need to understand it completely and I don’t want you doing it for hours and hours. But just have a look at one or two and get a feel for it! Please let me know in the comments how you found it or contact me on my various social media channels! Let me know what it is that was daunting or what it is that you didn’t understand so we as scientists can think of new ways to make it easier for the public to understand what we are doing! One exciting way I’ve spotted recently will be discussed in Part Two of ‘How YOU can read a scientific paper‘!