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Sun Jun 25, 2017, 02:14 PM

How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2016/05/09/how-to-read-and-understand-a-scientific-paper-a-guide-for-non-scientists/

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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 also have to take notes, read it multiple times, and probably go look up other papers for some of the details. Reading a single paper may take you a very long time at first. Be patient with yourself. The process will go much faster as you gain experience.

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Before you begin reading, take note of the authors and their institutional affiliations. Some institutions (e.g. University of Texas) are well-respected; others (e.g. the Discovery Institute) may appear to be legitimate research institutions but are actually agenda-driven. Tip: google “Discovery Institute” to see why you don’t want to use it as a scientific authority on evolutionary theory.

Also take note of the journal in which it’s published. Reputable (biomedical) journals will be indexed by Pubmed. {EDIT: Several people have reminded me that non-biomedical journals won’t be on Pubmed, and they’re absolutely correct! (thanks for catching that, I apologize for being sloppy here). Check out Web of Science for a more complete index of science journals. And please feel free to share other resources in the comments!} Beware of questionable journals.

As you read, write down every single word that you don’t understand. You’re going to have to look them all up (yes, every one. I know it’s a total pain. But you won’t understand the paper if you don’t understand the vocabulary. Scientific words have extremely precise meanings).

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http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2016/05/09/how-to-read-and-understand-a-scientific-paper-a-guide-for-non-scientists/

Some thoughtful and useful advice here (with embedded links). Although perhaps this post should be packaged with a post on "Living a balanced life: a guide for scientists." (The reading process described is a bit time-consuming... )

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Response to petronius (Original post)

Sun Jun 25, 2017, 02:36 PM

1. For the last step in this excellent discussion, one can check citations by accessing the paper...

...from Google Scholar.

It is simply not true that every paper with few (or no) citations is a bad paper. Many important papers have been totally ignored only to be discovered years - or decades - later.

However it is a good rule of thumb that a highly cited paper is involved with current scientific thinking on a subject, particularly if it is important.

It is also worth noting that publication even in a reputable journal is not synonymous with truth. If one is involved with the replication of scientific results, one will surely find that many papers are not reproducible and some, regrettably are actually fraudulent.

This is a big problem, but in general, most of what is published in the primary scientific literature is valuable and often extremely important.

I note that much of what is published by journalists in the popular press is pure garbage. It is journalists, and not scientists, who have made it possible for a large segment of the population to take, among other things, climate science denial as strong as it is.

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Response to NNadir (Reply #1)

Sun Jun 25, 2017, 06:16 PM

3. Excellent points. The ability to search 'cited by' is particularly valuable tool for

getting a sense of where a paper fits in the grand scheme (as is the ability to directly search a paper's citation list)...

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Response to petronius (Original post)

Sun Jun 25, 2017, 03:17 PM

2. How to write a scientific paper: A (very partial) guide for beginning science students.

OK, this is VERY partial -- but don't even try to write a paper without having read at least a dozen full papers yourself (short communications don't count).


It always ticks me off when schools put so much emphasis on writing -- "Writing Throughout the Curriculum" is the latest misguided pseudo-concept -- when so many students aren't even any good at using READING as a tool. For a great many it's just something unpleasant to be gotten over with, and no point in bothering to do a good job of it or learn anything beyond rote memorization. Reading is a deeply unnatural act, and it requires training and practice to do it right. Learning by imitation alone is not adequate if we expect to raise educated, thoughtful members of society. Before we try forcing students to do a lot of writing we need to make it clear what we are trying to accomplish, and that needs to start with good reading. Otherwise, like assigned reading, students will muddle through assigned writing -- "because it's assigned, we have to do it, so let's just try to get it over with". This leads to little improvement, in my experience. Teachers labor to grade reams of poorly written reports to little end; good writers stay good writers, bad writers stay bad writers. Don't expect repetitive labor alone to provide instruction. Above all, avoid buzzword-driven programs such as "Writing Across The Curriculum" which were only created because of a glut of English majors who want to teach creative writing, as if that were somehow the crux of civilized society.

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Response to eppur_se_muova (Reply #2)

Sun Jun 25, 2017, 06:28 PM

4. Good suggestion. My school is a bit guilty of that I'm afraid, although we're starting

to address it. There are 'writing' course scattered all through the general education curriculum, but I've long believed that few instructors outside a couple of specific disciplines are requiring the writing, or more importantly giving serious feedback on writing effectiveness. However, it seems like disappointed feedback from employers of our graduates has caused some people to take notice.

Training on reading is basically nonexistent, outside of maybe History and Communication Studies. I discuss it with my classes a bit, and have discussions in office hours, but more often than not a student's understanding of how to use the textbook is: "So, I made flash card from all the bolded words. Is there anything else I need to do?"

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