Someone once told me that if you read just one paper a week, you will become a world-class expert in your chosen topic after seven years. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but this strikes me as a terribly useful New Year’s resolution, certainly worthy of inclusion alongside getting a gym membership and learning to balance my checkbook!
Whether you are already an expert or a layperson looking to become an expert, the ability to read and digest scientific papers is an excellent skill to add to your repertoire. There are a number of great resources out there. For example, this Violent Metaphors blog post is wonderful in that it gives well-defined, step-by-step instructions for critically reading a primary source article – this is extremely useful if you really want to understand a scientific paper in depth.
Sometimes, though, you just need to read a lot of papers and assimilate a lot of new information in a short amount of time. I’ve managed to streamline this process and would like to share with you some of my tips and tricks for reading papers as quickly as possible.
Dipping Your Toes
The first part of a paper that you will ever lay eyes upon is its abstract. This is, perhaps, the most crucial part of a paper, because it determines whether or not you should read the rest of the paper. A good abstract is short, to the point, and contains the following five ingredients.
- – Brief background information
- – Question/problem statement
- – Experimental approach
- – Results
- – Impacts and implications of the work
I’ve found that the clearest and most easily understood abstracts are often only five sentences long: one sentence per point. Once you’ve identified these five key points, you’ll be able to make a decision as to whether or not the paper is interesting enough and useful enough to continue.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Now that you’ve decided that a certain paper is indeed worth your time, read the introduction first. If you don’t understand the background information contained in the introduction, you won’t understand the rest of the paper. This is not an indictment on your lack of knowledge; even the introduction of a paper will most likely need to be reread several times. In fact, reread the abstract at the same time. The abstract often contains the same material as the introduction, albeit in a more condensed form, and the more ways that you are exposed to the same information, the more likely it is to sink in.
While you are reading, take copious notes – even if you never read those notes again, the amount of processing that your brain has to do to in order regurgitate information back onto paper is often enough to make an idea “stick”. In fact, my office is littered with filled-up legal pads that I will never read again for this very reason. First and foremost, while you are looking through the introduction, try to highlight and write down the background, the problem statement, the approach, the result, and the implication of the work, even if you have already identified these five points in the abstract. If you can identify these, you’re well on your way to understanding the rest of the paper. You should also write down any unfamiliar terms or jargon so that you can look them up later.
Reading a Paper is Never Just Reading ‘a’ Paper
As you read, I suggest you have available two copies of the paper in question. Chances are, this paper will cite other papers, so keep one copy open to the ‘References’ section as you read – that way you can quickly look up other papers as they are cited in the text. Reading a paper rarely if ever consists of reading only ONE paper. As you are reading, you may (actually, will) want to keep some of these new references open beside you as well.
As you begin to check out other papers, you’ll start to discover some patterns: there are generally a few key works in the field that almost everything else refers to and these are the papers that are crucial to read (or at the very least to identify so that you can skim them later). Usually there will be a couple of big review articles in the field, and a paper describing a big experimental result will often refer back to a design paper – these types of papers can be helpful to skim. And of course, knowing which papers to read will also help you figure out which papers to skip over, which is a crucial part of extracting information efficiently.
Once you are reasonably comfortable with the introduction, skip to the conclusion. Most scientific papers have an hourglass shape. An introduction typically starts off broad in scope and hones in on a specific problem statement; a conclusion on the other hand will usually start with a concise, focused summary of the results and then zoom out to provide some broader context for the work and/or future prospects for the experiment in question. As you read the conclusion, first identify where the authors have summarized the highlights of the paper. You should now know exactly what the paper is about. Pay attention, too, if the conclusion discusses any further work to be done, especially if the paper is a couple years old. You might be able to find an updated version or more recent result.
If it’s difficult to understand the highlights of the paper as stated in the conclusion, there are a couple of things you can try. You can flip back and reread the problem statement from the introduction to see how it matches up with the conclusion. You can do a literature search for similar works or review articles that might state the same thing but in a way that is easier to understand. Or, you can go through the results in more detail in the body of the paper.
The Meat in the Sandwich: Methods, Data, Analysis, Results
After reading the abstract, the introduction, and the conclusion, you should have the big idea down fairly well. If you still want to dig into the meat of a paper, start with the results. Results are typically self-contained with no references to other papers. Methods sections can be very technical and may or may not contain references to other papers, so consider yourself forewarned. If you absolutely have to dive into the main body of a paper, I recommend looking at the figures and tables in the results section first. A picture really is worth a thousand words. And don’t neglect figure captions – these can be very informative.
There you have it. I’ve found this outside-in method of reading papers to be as effective as it is quick. Hopefully this was helpful, and I wish you the best of luck in your next paper-reading endeavor!