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Reading in the Disciplines: Science

Advice from Professor Pan

... "reading research papers is like reading Shakespeare for the first time in middle school or high school. At first it seems completely incomprehensible ("people used to talk like that?!"), but with practice gets easier and easier."

Approaching a Paper

Professor Pan explains how he reads an article.

How to read a journal article

Oftentimes, journal articles are written in a way that doesn’t make it very easy for the reader to follow.  It can be easy to get lost in unfamiliar terms and abbreviations as well as bad organization.  The only way to get better at reading articles is to read a lot of them.  Here is how I read an article. 

  1. Carefully read the Abstract and Introduction.  I do a lot of highlighting, underlining, and writing definitions all throughout the paper.
  2. Read the results slowly, spending a lot of time looking at the figures and figure legends, and the text that refers to each figure.  Hopefully, the text should follow the order of the figures (sometimes the authors skip around).
  3. For each figure, make sure you understand what each part of the figure is showing.  There may be lots of abbreviations or terms you are unfamiliar with.  You’ll have to find their definitions in the text, Materials and Methods, prior references, or web resources (I use Wikipedia sometimes when reading articles since it saves time, but it isn’t always reliable).
  4. For each figure, write down all the info needed to understand the figure.  Also, write what the take home message of the figure is.    
  5. Supplemental figures add another level of complexity, especially since they have to be found separately.  I usually focus on the figures in the paper first and the supplemental if there is time. 
  6. Read the Discussion.  There tends to be more speculation in the Discussion, some of it should make more sense since you’ve carefully gone through the figures. 
  7. Re-reading the Abstract again also helps a lot here. 
  8. You should be able to summarize the main points of the article and describe how (through the experiments) they got to their conclusions.

How to read a scientific paper

Science Magazine-How to Read a Journal article

How to Read Like A Scientist- from Kenyon College

Reading in the Sciences

Reading in the sciences can be very different than reading a basic text for information or reading for pleasure.  Reading the scientific literature, especially for the new reader, is more challenging and time-consuming than reading other texts. 


Reading scientific texts challenge the reader with new concepts, technical vocabulary, and new formats. Different scientific disciplines have different terminology

Approaching a journal article, first read the abstract.  Make sure you take the time to understand what to expect in the article.  If the abstract is too challenging or describes an article that sounds too challenging, it is likely this is not the best article for you. 

Some questions to ask yourself when reading a paper include:

What are the functions of the investigation:

  • to explore
  • to examine previous results
  • to test a theory

How does the evidence presented contribute to the function of the investigation?

What data has been collected?

How has the data been analyzed?

What is the research design?

What are the logical links between data and findings?

How does this relate to previous findings and widely accepted theory?

What are potential sources of bias?

  • Where did the study funding come from?
  • Could the findings be influenced?


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