Reading a report of original scientific paper is daunting in several ways. The first challenge to reading original papers is that you have to know where to look for them. I could write an entire series of posts about the joys and challenges of hunting through databases for papers. Furthermore, unlike most popular articles, a scientific paper uses the jargon of the field, as it is written under the assumption that the audience has a strong background in the topic. Primary reports on research also tend to lack the narrative elements that science communicators use to engage their audience. Finally, and perhaps most challenging aspect for an inexperienced reader, “primary literature” (this is another name for a paper written by researchers about a study they have performed), is composed of five distinct parts, each with its own contents and conventions. Despite these challenges, being able to understand primary literature is an essential skill for anyone interested accessing undiluted science, because reading primary literature allows us to form our own opinions about research, unhampered by the biases of others.
Let’s start by breaking down each of the sections you’ll find in any paper. If you want to follow along while looking at an example, try this paper I used when writing a post about wolves in Yellowstone.
Abstract: The abstract is the first part of any scientific paper. Arguably, it’s also the most important, because it sums up the entire paper in 100-500 words. Always read the abstract first to get an idea of what the paper is about. When I’m looking for papers to use in my posts, I can usually tell if a paper is going to be helpful by just reading the abstract.
Introduction: The introduction (also sometimes called “background”) comes second. This should also be the next thing you read, especially if you’re not an expert in the topic of the paper. The introduction should start with a broad opening statement, and then gradually gets more specific as the section goes on, ending with the researcher’s hypothesis or goals for the study. The introduction has three purposes:
- It introduces the paper’s topic and describes the previous research in the field. Experiments aren’t done in a vacuum—they’re built on the foundations other scientists have laid down before them.
- It should clearly explain a gap in knowledge. After explaining what is already known about their topic, the researchers illustrate where this knowledge falls short. What isn’t known? And why is it worth knowing?
- Finally, the introduction ends with a brief explanation of how they are going to fill the gap in knowledge, and provides a hypothesis as to what their results will be. In a well-written introduction, the hypothesis will be supported by the rest of the introduction, so that whatever the researcher is proposing seems to fit well with what is already known.
Methods: The methods section usually is next after the introduction, though a few journals will actually put it last, at the very end of the paper. Personally, I prefer to leave the methods section for last, or if I’m in a hurry, I’ll skip it entirely (shhh, don’t tell anyone!). The methods section is the most technical part of the paper. The purpose of this section is to tell the reader exactly how the scientists tested their hypothesis. It needs to provide all the information another scientist would need to repeat the study later, so it is often jargon-heavy and written for efficiency, not readability.
Results: The results section will present (you guessed it) the results of the experiment. This section usually involves a number of graphs and tables. Each graph or table will have its own matching paragraph that presents its contents verbally. The results section will describe the results of statistical analyses without providing any interpretation of what those results mean in relation to the hypothesis. (That stuff gets saved for the discussion.) Like the methods, this section is all about presenting the information clearly and succinctly for the benefit of other scientists.
Discussion: The discussion section usually follows the results, though sometimes researchers will combine these two sections. This section is where the interpretation of the results happens. I usually read the discussion after I read the introduction. If you want a basic understanding of the research, but aren’t concerned with any of the details or technicalities, you could read just the introduction and the discussion and ignore the other parts of the paper. The discussion typically does three things (notice how these relate to the introduction’s three purposes).
- First, the discussion will describe how a particular result relates to the hypothesis. Here’s an example: “Our data show that Anna ate significantly more chocolate chip cookies than oatmeal raisin cookies (figure 1). This supports our hypothesis that addiction to chocolate influences cookie choices.”
- Next, the discussion will relate the result to other research that has already been done. Have other people supported the same hypothesis? How does this result fit into the broader picture? Sometimes a researcher will even suggest ideas for how future research could further their investigation into this topic or clarify something that was still ambiguous at the end of the study.
- Finally, the discussion will end with broader statements about why this line of research is important. Why is it important to study this? What are the overall conclusions we can make? Sometimes the conclusions are separated out into their own section.
That ends our dissection of a scientific paper! Admittedly, some papers break these conventions or shuffle around the sections, but knowing the rules makes reading the exceptions that much easier. If you’re just starting to explore the world of primary literature, remember to be patient with yourself. These papers are usually aimed at a highly educated niche audience, and reading them is a skill that can take years to develop. Feel free to leave comments, questions, and tips below!