How to read a research paper: Tips and Techniques
As a researcher, a physician, or a student, reading a scientific paper is an important part of developing knowledge and experience as well as preparing for conferences and classes.
Learning the essential techniques of reading any scientific paper is very important to save time and efforts and to make the most out of any research paper. There are many proper methods to read papers.
One of the most reliable techniques is to read the paper in two phases instead of reading the whole paper in one go. Using this method, papers are read quickly to scan and catch the main idea of that paper. This step should take no more than five to ten minutes.
In this step, the title, the abstract, the introduction, and the section and subsection heading should be read carefully, ignoring everything else. After that, the conclusion should be scanned.
Tips to reading a paper:
- Develop a style of your own
- Understand the knowledge you aim to get from the reading the paper and in which section you could find it
- Skim and scan
- Glance through the pages just to look at any illustrations, pictures and plots, and finally read the final summary and conclusions.
- Find the conference abstract of the paper. Research papers are usually presented in the conferences before they find their way to a journal, the conference version is usually a shorter and easier read.
Most journals use a conventional IMRD structure. For beginners, abstract is the key. But for experts, visuals are the key!
Abstracts usually contain four kinds of information:
- Purpose or rationale of study (Why they did it)
- Methodology (How they did it)
- Results (What they found)
The main shortcuts to reading:
- Title –> Abstract –> keywords –> visuals –> discussion –> the rest of the paper
- Title –> Abstract –> introduction –> conclusion –> discussion
- Title –> visuals –> discussion
Then, if the paper is of interest to you, you can do a deeper, more detailed reading and by the end of this step you should have the ability to answer many questions:
1- What is the type of the paper? What is the paper about?
2- What problem does it claim to solve?
3- Is there any other related papers?
4- Why is the problem important? (motivation, challenges)
5- Which theoretical bases were used to analyze the problem?
6- What is the proposed solution? (hypothesis, key idea)
7- How valid are the assumptions?
8- How clear is the paper?
9- Is the problem or the solution of interest to you?
10- What does the paper accomplish? (main contribution, important findings)
11- If you were to tackle this problem, could you think of other (or better) solutions?
Read as a critic!
When reading for the second time (deeper more detailed reading) critical reading techniques can be of great use and can help you answer many useful questions
- Does the paper propose a method in which case, is it sound? does it work?
- What are the main contributions? key ideas?
- How does their work fit in with other similar works?
- What improvement/extensions do they contribute?
- What are the main assumptions? Do they appear to be valid?
- What are the limitations of the approach?
- What are the novelties/strengths?
- How is the method evaluated?
- Are there any experimental/analytical errors?
- How the authors demonstrate/prove that their solutions work?
- What are the findings?
- Do their results make sense?
- Are the findings supported by persuasive evidence?
- Is there an alternative interpretation of the data that the authors did not address?
- How are the findings unique/new/unusual or supportive of other works in the field?
- Did the authors do what they said they are going to do?
- What is the most important figure?
- What are future directions of this research?
- What are some of the specific applications of the ideas presented here?
- Can the research results be applied to another context?
- What are some further experiments that would answer remaining questions?
- Is the approach something that you might use in your work?
- How do these results relate to the work you are interested in? To other work you have read about?
Notes should be taken and the paper should be read with greater care and focus on the figures, diagrams, graphs and illustrations, then any common mistakes should be highlighted and the conclusion should be evaluated.
Put quotation marks around any exact wording you write down so that you can avoid accidental plagiarism when you later cite the article.
This step should take up to one hour, in which you should be able to summarize the main idea of the paper.
It is very important to know that not all research papers are good, and it is highly recommended to choose the right article before starting. This depends on the expected results of reading the paper (diagnosis, therapy or expanding information).
Some additional tips for a good reading experience:
- Comparing the paper with other articles.
- Making notes while reading the paper.
- Summarizing the paper in one or two sentences.
- Deciding whether the assumptions of the paper are valid.
- Highlighting the good ideas, and finding other applications of these ideas which the author might not have thought of.
- Paying attention to key words and terminology
Content created by Alaa Alhaffar, MD
Content reviewed by Mariana Haydar, MD