Sharpen your Skills: Scientific Reading

Reading for class and reading for fun are two entirely different beasts. Sometimes understanding scientific literature can be tricky, there is a lot of jargon and technical terminology which can be confusing and hard to digest. In this blog post, I’ll discuss some tips I personally use to help myself understand scientific journals and articles!

Print it out!

If you’re anything like me, I get distracted when I am trying to read a new journal or article on my computer. There are too many other things going on, and sometimes I just find it hard to focus on the literature in front of me. This also lets you highlight, underline, and write notes to the side of things you want to reinforce. Doing this is a good first step for any new piece of literature. 

“Strategic Reading” Technique

Something I learned in Journal Club in college was the concept of strategic reading. This involves a quick way to dissect an article and figure out what is important. Often, you don’t have time to read the entire article in whole from start to finish (and nor do you really want to). Generally with strategic reading, I like to dissect the title first. Scientific article titles are usually pretty lofty but contain a lot of vital information for the article. For example, lets look at this article:

From just the title we can pull the following information: that the researchers completed a behavior profile for the C. elegans, and they were able to discover a role that dopamine plays in motor programs in the C. elegans. Then, when you move to the abstract you can get a more in-depth description of what the researchers did during the study as well as a general overview of the results.

When you’re reading the abstract, you can usually pull out a few key pieces of information that can help you decide whether you want to keep reading the article for your research purposes or not. In red, I underlined the main issue this article is addressing; the need to understand the neural mechanisms that control the motor programs in C. elegans. In yellow, I underlined what they were doing in this article, while in blue I underlined how they did it. Then finally in green, I underlined the main take away/result/major finding from their research. Now that this information is pulled you can decide if you want to continue reading the paper or not. After the abstract, I will usually then go to the results or discussion section. This section will generally elaborate on the findings that are briefly mentioned in the abstract. Last, I’ll read the methods to better understand the research process that the researchers completed. Strategic reading helps me narrow down the articles I pooled for research, and honestly it saves a lot of time. Here is the link to the mentioned article:

Don’t be afraid to look things up!

It should go without saying, but you can’t be expected to know every single thing about a paper when it is your first time reading it! I like to highlight certain things in a different color so I know to look it up if I’m not near my computer or phone to look it up then and there. I find myself googling methods and techniques the most, especially when it is one I have never done before. This way I can better understand why the researchers chose to use the technique and what the technique involves.

Reiterate your findings back to someone else

Whether it is a classmate, a colleague, a friend, or a stuffed animal, sometimes reiterating or teaching what you just learned to someone else is the best way to make sure you understood what you just read! My favorite way to do this is to subject one of my friends who does not have any science background to my lesson. This was most helpful when I was in Journal Club, or preparing for a research presentation in grad school. They’ll be able to tell you if you’re giving enough background information, and sometimes their confusion can help uncover any holes in your explanation.

If your school has a Journal Club or some other sort of Scientific Literacy club, I recommend joining that. Not only will it help you sharpen your skills for reading and understanding scientific literature, but it may also help you conquer any presentation anxiety, or introduce you to some mentors!

Practice makes perfect.

With most things, practice makes perfect! Don’t be discouraged if you have to read a paragraph several times to understand it, or if you feel like it is taking you forever to work through an article. It is okay! The researchers that wrote the paper spent far more time on the subject than you did, so it should naturally take you some amount of time to fully digest their work and results.

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