Reading Scientific Literature

After a long month I have recently completed a literature review for a research project I have been working on. Anyone who has been through this process will empathise that it can be a long, laborious task that can be painstakingly frustrating at times. However, it is an incredibly important part of the research process. It can often feel like a project within itself, but it is a key academic skill that demonstrates the ability to not only critically review the relevant literature available for a research project,  but to identify any gaps  within the literature that you will be attempting to address in your own research.

Reading scientific papers is something I am used too and it provides the underpinning of my practice. However, it is a skill to be able to read a paper and interpret it,  something that can seem daunting to those from a non-scientific environment.  Every now and again though a paper will come out that lead to an individual (or group of individuals) reading the abstract and forming a conclusion based on this very small part of the paper. This can lead to total mis-interpretation and mis-information being passed on.

For this blog, I am going to attempt to put some small tips up to help you with reading the various sections of a scientific paper. It is worth noting that there is no set-in-stone way of reading a paper, but hopefully the following tips will help you make sense of the scientific literature.

The starting point for me before searching for a paper is by asking myself what my research question is. It could be, ‘Does squatting improve sprinting in footballers?’ or ‘What are the absolute speed thresholds in female football players?’

After a brief search (PubMed, Google Scholar, EBSCO, University Library etc) and finding literature that relates to my question its time to get reading.

Generally, research papers are split into six sections, while others may read papers in a completely different order. However, for the purpose of this, blog I am going to keep to the order in which the sections of the are paper generally divided:

Title & Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion & Conclusion

Read the Title & Abstract 

It may sound incredibly obvious but this is the first step. While reading this part of the paper I am asking myself if the paper is relevant to the question I am asking. The abstract will give you a quick overview of what the paper is about and will help you decide whether the paper is actually relevant to what you are researching. The abstract will summarise why the research was needed, how the researchers carried out their investigation, what they found and how the found it, and what the key takeaway points of the study are. Bear in mind here that most of this information will be condensed into 100-250 words, but should give you a good idea of whether this research is applicable to your research question. While it is short, the abstract is valuable and can help you to ask yourself the following questions:

What is the study is about?

What was investigated and why?

Who are the researchers? Are they credible?

How did they carry out the research and why did they do it a particular way?

When did they do the research? Is it recent?

Where was this research carried out? Is the journal peer reviewed?

After asking these questions you should be able to decide whether or not the paper is going to be of any use in helping you answer your research question. If you are still not sure then read on…

Read the Introduction section

In this section the authors are doing there best to provide you with some background information on their research topic. The introduction though is not a systematic review of their topic. However,  the introduction should give you some information that can connect the research and the bigger issues or provide the writer’s argument as to why this research is important. It should start to become clear now whether the paper has any relevance to your question.

Understand the methods 

For some (and I include myself) this is the most important part of the paper. But it can also be a love/hate relationship for some! It can sometimes seem overwhelming, and appear to be the most difficult section to understand. What did the researchers do to get their results? This is where we need to ask questions about the methods used. Was there any bias in the authors methods? One key point here for the methods section is that if you fail to understand the methods used by the researchers, it could be very difficult to judge the veracity of their results and conclusions. Understanding what the gold standard research methodology here may be incredibly helpful e.g. did investigators use hydrostatic weighing for body composition analysis or did they use handheld bio-impedence device in their methodology? If you feel that the quality of methodology is sufficient, read on! It is worth spending a lot of time on the methods, and try to understand the experimental set up, how the data was collected and and how the authors analysed their data. The methods (and results) section allow you to deconstruct paper to ensure it stands up to scientific rigour.

The real meat – the results

This is the real nitty-gritty of the paper, where we can start to draw our own conclusions about the research. We can normally extract different types of information from the results section: the data from the research methods, ideas about how to improve the methods, and an understanding of how the data is represented. The results could tell you the real story about the experiment! Make sure you examine each figure and table, read the figure legend so you understand what all the research variables are, and head back to the methods section if you’re unsure of how the data was collected.

The Discussion & The Conclusion

Its not uncommon to have the conclusion included in the discussion section, hence the reason I have included them together here. This is where the authors are trying to demonstrate the value of their research and express their opinion. In short, the researchers will interpret their results and discuss at length what they think their results mean to their field of study. They may try to put their results within the context of other studies or exchange ideas for future studies or the authors may acknowledge any limitations in their research methodology.  The key point here its that the discussion may only be the authors opinion or their own interpretations, not necessarily the facts. The discussion section is still a great place to gain ideas on areas within research that may still have unanswered questions and the authors can do a great job of interpreting their results and relating it back what others have found. Here we can find the takeaway points from the authors research (if any!) and/or any recommendations the authors make based on their research. Overall this section can provide some interesting points and help you with points that you may not of thought of before.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is no set way to read a paper. Interpreting the paper is a skill, and as repetition is the mother of skill, I would thoroughly recommend going back over the paper, reading areas you didn’t understand, and highlighting areas you feel are important.

If in doubt – read again. Not all studies are created equal!












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