Daunted by the thought of reading your first scientific paper? Intimidated by scientific jargon? Tired of the media giving you their conclusions about the latest medical and scientific research? Whether you're a researcher or just someone who wants to be self-informed, learning to critically read a piece of scientific literature is an indispensable skill.
Use the title and the abstract as a guide for your reading
Start reading the title and abstract first. The abstract summarizes the main conclusions of the research. Reading the title and the abstract can help you decide whether you know enough to appreciate the contents of the paper. The points made in the abstract should help you focus the rest of your reading, namely focusing on keywords to look out for.
Organize unfamiliar scientific jargon into a list as you read
No matter the content of the paper, there will always be specialized terms that will be unfamiliar to you. Keeping a list of unfamiliar terms will help you decide which terms require further investigation. As you look up each unfamiliar term on your list, your comprehension of the paper will increase.
Read the Materials and Methods sections to recreate the experiments in your head
The purpose of the Material and Methods section is to describe all the materials, equipment, and procedures used to perform the experiments, and should allow any other scientist to recreate the experiments, and hence, recreate the results. It will be very important that you thoroughly understand the methods used, or be prepared to take extra time to inform yourself.
Check the logic between the results section and the points made in the abstract
The results section describes the experiment and provides reasons for why they were done. This will be the evidence used to support the authors’ main points that were stated in the abstract. When it comes time to use a critical eye, the conclusions will only hold water if the evidence from the results logically support it. You should first take a good while to analyze each figure carefully, then connect it back to the specific result. Assuming the data are believable, evaluate the logical connection between the result and its conclusion. Is it sound? Are there other ways to explain the data? Never be afraid to criticize the work of any scientist, as no one is infallible.