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Reading scientific literature – for dummies

in That Makes Sense by

If you are interested in the latest science breakthroughs, there is some good news for you. Be it to know more about a disease your mother has, to write a newspaper article about the latest scientific discovery, or to look for the latest research on a topic of undergraduate study; scientific literature is increasingly becoming available at your fingertips!
Recently, there has been a significant push in support of open access publishing in the scientific field. This “unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scientific research”, as Wikipedia defines it, is supposed to create a revolution in scientific communication. The main argument in its favour is that research done with tax-payer’s money should be available to the public for free, and the internet has greatly made open access possible.
However, an important question that this movement has ignored, is this – how would the general public be able to understand, make sense of, and utilize this information in the right way? Scientific literature is often detailed and boring, with scientific jargon scattered all over, that only scientists from a specific field are able to understand. It’s a running joke between researchers that reading a scientific paper is the best cure for insomnia! So, how would a lay person be able to understand this information even if its made available to him?
If it helps, a paper on amygdala anatomy is as difficult to understand for me as it is for you, even though I am at the end of my PhD in life sciences – simply because I am in a completely different field. However, with some basic knowledge of science, you can actually manage to understand the scientific discoveries in a particular field if you have some time and patience.
In this post, I have given some pointers to simplify navigating through the ocean of scientific literature with very little or no knowledge of the field.

Don’t let the jargon scare you!

Sample this –

Scientists are notorious for using the most complex-sounding tongue-twisters in their papers. But don’t let it deter you. It would help to have a medical dictionary or Wikipedia handy, to look up terms you don’t understand. The best papers are the ones where each term is introduced and explained properly. Also, try to understand that commonly used words have a slightly different meaning in scientific literature.

Where to look for an article?
For biomedical articles you can search on Pubmed, the repository of the NIH. A search for “alzheimer’s” gives all articles with the word anywhere in the paper. For more specific searches, you can use “alzheimer’s [Title/Abstract]”. You can also use other parameters for searching, like Author and date of publication and Boolean operators like AND, OR, NOT. Google scholar also gives good results.

If the article you are searching for is not available for free, try your nearest University library. Most Universities have access to paid journals. There are some online torrents, sites and even a Facebook page where academicians share papers that they have access to.

Start with reviews
Reviews combine the results from several articles to give a good overview of the field. If you are new to the field or want information in layman terms, reviews are generally a good starting point. Even as a researcher, reviews are the best place to start before we dive into the huge pool of literature on a topic. The downside is that you might not learn about fresh research that got published in the last few months. If a review seems too difficult, start with a textbook entry. There are many free books available on NCBI Books.

How to read a journal article
A research paper has several sections, generally arranged in a particular order – Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion and Conclusion. However, if you want to find information quickly without delving into all the details, you can follow this order:

Read the Abstract first and the Conclusion – this will give you a quick idea about what the paper is all about, and the highlights of the research presented.

Then read the Introduction and Discussion – This will give you an idea of previous research in the field. The ‘Introduction’ introduces the topic, and cites related literature. The ‘discussion’ explains the implications of the research carried out by the authors, and how it relates to the currently available knowledge.

And finally the Results section, which details the experiments performed and the exact outcome of all experiments. If you must read this section, start with analyzing each figure and table, and read their captions. Try to draw your own conclusions, and mark the irregularities in the data. Be critical of what is represented in the figures and what is claimed in the text, and if they indeed match!

Keep in mind the basic rules of statistics when analyzing data:

  • What information is represented on the X and Y-axes on graphs? Then think about what the data really indicates.
  • What is the sample size used for the study? In most cases, the bigger the sample size, the more reliable the results.
  • Is there any apparent bias in the sample? For example, did they consider only Caucasians for the study. In that case, is it still relevant for Asians?
  • Are there multiple experiments pointing to the same conclusion?

The Methods section is best left to a trained researcher in the field, and is generally not required to be understood to know the implications of the research.

Understand the general consensus in the field
If you are trying to find out if product x causes cancer, try to read several articles on the topic. This will give you an idea of what the best researchers in the field think about the topic. This way, you can also learn about different perspectives – one researcher might claim it causes cancer, while another might show it causes cancer only under certain conditions. Also, make sure that the articles are not from the same laboratory. For Biomedical literature, you can check the last author(s), who is generally the Principal Investigator (or Professor), and their University affiliations. If the articles published by different authors at different universities have similar conclusions, it shows that the research is reproducible and there is a consensus.

Impact factor is not the best indicator of quality
This is a mistake that I made until I was a Masters student! The impact factor of a journal indicates how well-cited the articles from this journal are. However, the most highly rated journals are like newspapers looking for the most sensational news. Although, most research published here is of good quality, it is best not to take it as the absolute truth. Instead, try to look for how well-cited and well-researched the article itself is. When you read an article in Pubmed, you can see how many times this article has been cited by others.

Take it with a pinch of salt
Scientific research is complicated and difficult, because one is charting new territories. As my adviser says, researchers are like the blind men trying to figure out an elephant. Each has their own version of the “truth” and all of them could be correct, or wrong! Hence, be careful about jumping to strong conclusions. High impact, well cited articles could be proven wrong or insufficient at a later point.

First published on LinkedIn on Jan 27, 2015



About the author: Czuee has a PhD from University of Lausanne, Switzerland and Masters from IIT Bombay. She has previously worked at IISc-Monsanto collaboration and as a patent analyst at Evalueserve. Apart from her research on proteins involved in brain signalling and diabetes, she is interested in scientific communication, entrepreneurship and runs a webcomic (

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