Friday, September 6, 2013
How to Read a Scientific Paper
What changed my mind was a course I took (plant biochemistry) in which the professor assigned published articles on a variety of topics to us to read and discuss. Quite a few of the papers involved molecular and other techniques that were as mysterious to me as the process of flying might be to an elephant. Being a conscientious student, however, I endeavored to teach myself how to read and understand scientific papers about unfamiliar topics. To make a long story short, I developed a procedure not unlike the one recently posted by Jennifer Raff, a Research Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Texas (which I'll get to in a moment).
With my method, I was able to effectively critique all the assigned papers and to enthusiastically participate in class discussions (we were graded on our class participation). I discovered that not only could I hold my own with the rest of the class (mostly biochemistry grad students who were more familiar with such articles), I was able to point out critical flaws in the studies that no one else saw. My strong background in statistics was particularly useful in poking holes in experimental designs (to my surprise, most of the assigned papers reported no statistics whatsoever, not even standard error bars). When the professor began calling on me for my assessment of a paper's experimental approach and whether the conclusions were supported by the data, I knew I would never wonder again whether I could understand any scientific paper and whether its findings were valid.
If someone with scientific research training can feel inadequate when faced with an unfamiliar topic, imagine how non-scientists must feel–particularly science writers who are assigned the task of writing a newspaper or magazine article about a new discovery reported in a scientific journal. To help such folks, Jennifer Raff has written a nice blog post called "How to read and understand a scientific article: a guide for non-scientists".
Her post is not only a good guide for non-scientists, it is an excellent primer for science students and even scientific researchers wanting to improve their skills at reviewing papers.