READING SCIENTIFIC PAPERS
FINDING A SUITABLE ARTICLE TO REVIEW:
1. Reference lists - Once you find a single good article, you can use the reference list at the end of the article to find an ever-expanding list of related articles. (See also Citation Index below.)
2. Reliable journals - People will often page through two or three of their favorite journals just to look for interesting articles and to generally keep up with what is going on in science. Most libraries (and in particular, Lane - medicine, and Falconer - biology) have designated sections where they display recent received journals.
3. Popular press - The press often receives advanced copies of journals even before they are sent to scientists or libraries. One can get interesting leads on what will be coming out. Remember, that only a miniscule proportion of findings reach the popular press so the selection is often biased and/or sensationalized. However, this is the view that the lay public has about science and medicine, so it is worthwhile to read on that basis alone. NEVER take the findings presented in a newspaper article at face value. Always look up the citation for yourself and see what it says. See if they got the message right. See how strong the evidence is. Certain papers such as the New York Times are much more likely to get the facts straight. Others, such as The National Enquirer should be assumed to be fictionalized and are of no value (except perhaps as entertainment). You should realize that the headings for articles are NOT written by the authors. They are written to catch the eye and to conform to space requirements. Therefore, they are even more likely to contain erroneous statements, even for an article that is accurately written.
4. Colleagues, professors, and friends. Because no one person can possibly screen the literature, this is an excellent way to find out about interesting articles.
5. Current Contents - This is a journal that consists of the table of contents reprinted from a number of other journals. This is a way of rapidly perusing the titles of a large number of articles in order to decide which ones bear further scrutiny.
* 6. Citation Index - To me this is one of the most valuable resources there is. It allows one take take a reference "forward in time". It is a compilation of all the articles that were referenced by recently published articles. Therefore, if you find an excellent article from two years ago, you can look that article up and see what other articles used it as a reference in the past month for instance. This is a way to find a more recent article on the same topic.
7. Compilations of Abstacts - In concept, these are like Current Contents. In this case, however, they are published less frequently, and they contain not only the title of the article but the abstract or summary as well.
1. Index Medicus
8. Computer searches - This is a good way to go if you know what topic you want to study, but you do not have a good starting place. It is imperative to do an appropriate job of restricting the search topic or you will end up with more references than you know what to do with, most of which will be extraneous.
9. Web searches - Very hit or miss as far as quality, however, I have been very impressed at the ability to locate hard to find trivia, comprehensible pictures and diagrams, and human interest aspects of a scientific story. Remember that different search engines will produce different results. For example, I have found Lycos to be more useful than Yahoo. Web Crawler will search using a variety of search engines at the same time.
READING SCIENTIFIC ARTICLES
There are many appproaches to reading scientific articles. Those of you who have had significant experience reading such articles will have developed a style of you own. For those of you who have not, I will discuss one approach.
One does not read a journal article like a novel or a newspaper article. There are several reasons for this:
1) The information is too dense to comprehend it with a simple reading.
2) You may be interested in a specific aspect of the article rather than the entire thing. The special structure of such articles allows one to find the desired section more easily.
3) Understanding of one part of an article will often require backward or forward reference to another part of the article.
*** For adequate understanding of an article, you should be prepared to read an article at least two, three, or four times. You will often be amazed to discover that what seemed completely incomprehensible on the first reading, appears to make perfect sense on subsequent readings. You should be comforted to know that even experienced scientists must read articles over and over again. Furthermore, there will be things you simply do not understand because 1) you do not have the adequate background, 2) they are just too complicated, or 3) they simply do not make sense. Do not overlook this last possibility simply because you see something in print.
You should be prepared to do some work in order to acquire sufficient background for adequate understanding of an article. This will include:
1) looking up points made in the references;
2) looking things up in textbooks;
3) looking up words in dictionaries (particularly biological and medical dictionaries);
4) asking questions of people who may know.
In general, people do not try to conquer every article they encounter. There are simply too many articles and it would require too much work. They tend to go through a sequential process of studying the article - all the while deciding whether or not to give it further attention. The decision is based on several factors:
1) Whether the article is of sufficient interest
2) Whether the article is relevant to their work
3) Whether the article is of general importance
4) Whether the article is if high quality and or accurate
5) Whether the article is clearly written and accessible at least after reasonable amount of effort
6) Whether the article is "meaty"
7) Whether the article is short.
Some specific suggestions:
Phase I: Screening the article
1) Read the title once fast looking for key words. Read the title slowly until it makes sense.
2) Look through the authors to see if there is anyone whose name you recognize, whose work you know. This is an important process in trying to judge the quality of the data.
3) Look at the date. In molecular biology, where information is rapidly changing, the date may be all-important. With policy issues, the date is less important than the quality of thought. Bear in mind that there is a definite lag period between when the research gets done, when the article gets written and when it gets published. In addition to the publication date, many journals list the date when the article was received, and the date when the article was accepted. Interestingly, journals that are refereed (see below) are more likely to be delayed in their publication, but are less likely to contain inaccurate or frivolous articles.
4) Some articles have a brief list of key words. Although they are sometimes misleading (as anyone who has done a computer reference search knows) they are usually quite informative and should be looked at early on.
Phase II: Getting the punch line.
1) Read the abstract once fast looking for key words. Read the abstract slowly until it makes sense.
2) Read introduction. The introduction is often the easiest part of an article to read. In some cases, it is also the most informative - not so much in terms of presenting new information, but in consolidating background information. Some authors will also present the punch line of their research in a way that is easier to understand than the way it is presented in the abstract.
3) The introduction will often cite many of the references. This is an excellent time to begin looking at them. The references are particularly informative if they contain the titles of the articles being cited. You will want to go back to the reference page over and over again.
Phase III: Understanding the approach
1) Peruse the figures and tables. You will not understand them this first time through but this will help you know what to look for when you actually read the article.
2) Go to the discussion. Read the first few paragraphs and the last few paragraphs. If it is short and/or easy to understand, read the whole thing.
Phase IV: First reading
1) If you get this far you may wish to photocopy the article if you have not already done so. The monetary investment will surely be trivial in comparison to the investment of your time.
2) Skim the abstract and the introduction once again. At this point you should be able to have an adequate understanding of them.
3) Skim the methods section. The methods section will need to be studied carefully only if you intend to use some of the procedures in your research.
Certain parts of the methods, such as where the chemicals were purchased or whence the viral strains were obtained do not actually contribute to an understanding of the article and may be safely omitted. Other parts of the methods may remain obscure even after the rest of the article is fairly clear. For our purposes, the methods should be studied only in so far as they contribute to the understanding of the rest of article.
4) Read the results section.
5) Read the discussion.
6) Study the figures and tables.
Phase V: Increasing understanding
1) Reread the article in its entirety. You may wish to read several times.
2) Be sure to write on the article. Circle words you do not know. Check important points. Question things you do not understand or that do not appear to make sense. X-off things that are wrong. Jot down further ideas or questions.
3) Consult the references. Look up points that were not fully explained.
Consult textbook to clarify points of general biology. Look up words that are unfamiliar.
4) Before leaving the article, reread the abstract once again.