How to Read a Scientific Paper

 

It’s one of the first, and likely most intimidating, assignments for a fledgling science reporter. “Here,” your editor says. “Write up this paper that’s coming out in Science this week.” And suddenly you’re staring at an impenetrable PDF—pages of scientific jargon that you’re supposed to understand, interview the author and outside commenters about, and describe in ordinary English to ordinary readers.

Fear not! The Open Notebook is here with a primer on how to read a scientific paper. These tips and tricks will work whether you’re covering developmental biology or deep-space exploration. The key is to familiarize yourself with the framework in which scientists describe their discoveries, and to not let yourself get bogged down in detail as you’re trying to understand the overarching point of it all. As a specific example, we’ve marked up a Science paper in the accompanying image.

But first, let’s break down what a typical scientific paper contains. Most include these basic sections, usually in this order:

The author list is as it sounds, a roster of the scientists involved in the discovery. But hidden within the names are clues that will help you navigate the politics of reporting the story. The first name in the list is often (but not always) the person who did the most work, perhaps the graduate student or postdoc who is the lead on the project. This person is usually (but not always) designated as the “corresponding author” by an asterisk by their name, or by their e-mail address being given on the first or last page of the paper. If the corresponding author is not the first name in the author list, then take extra care to Google the various authors and figure out how they relate to one another. (In many fields, such as biology and psychology, the last author in the list is typically the senior author or lab head. In others, such as experimental physics where the author list can number in the dozens or hundreds, authors are usually listed alphabetically.) The senior author might be able to provide some broad perspective as to why and how the study was undertaken. But the first or corresponding author is much more likely to be the person who actually did the work, and therefore your better request for an interview.

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The abstract is a summary of the paper’s conclusions. Always read this first, several times over. Usually the significance of the paper will be laid out here, albeit in technical terms. A good abstract will summarize what research was undertaken, what the scientists found, and why it’s important. (Compare the abstract of this recent Nature paper, on the discovery of a prehistoric human hybrid, to the first three paragraphs of Sarah Kaplan’s Washington Post story reporting the discovery. Kaplan clearly captures the essence of the new findings as described in the abstract.) Relevant numbers such as the statistical significance of the finding are often highlighted here as well. Abstracts are prone to typographical errors, so be sure to double-check numbers against the body of the paper as well as your interview with the author.

The body of the paper lays out the bulk of the scientific findings. Pay special attention to the first couple of paragraphs, which often serve as an introduction, describing previous research in the field and why the new work is important. This is an excellent place to hunt for references to other papers that can serve as your guidepost for outside commenters (more on that later). Next will come the details of how the research was done; sometimes much of this is broken out into a later methods section (see below). Then come the results, which may be lengthy. Look for phrases such as “we concluded” to clue you in to their most important points. If statistics are involved, see Rachel Zamzow’s primer on how to spot shady statistics.

The final section (sometimes labeled as discussion) often summarizes the new findings, puts them in context, and describes the likely next steps to be taken. If your reading has been dragging through the results section, now is the time to refocus. “That sort of information will help a writer answer the nearly inevitable “so what?” question for their readers as well as their editors,” says Sid Perkins, a freelance science writer in Crossville, Tennessee, who writes for outlets including Science and Science News for Students.

The figures are the data, graphics, or other visual representations of the discovery. Read these and their captions carefully, as they often contain the bulk of the new findings. If you don’t understand the figures, ask the scientist to walk you through them during your interview. Don’t be afraid to say things like, “I don’t understand what the x-axis means.”

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The references are your portal into a world of additional inscrutable PDFs. You need to plow through at least a couple of the citations, because they are your initial guide in figuring out who you need to call for outside comment. The references are referenced (usually by number) within the body of the text, so you can pinpoint the ones that will be most helpful. For instance, if the text talks about how previous studies have found the opposite of this new one, go look up the cited references, because those authors would be excellent outside commenters. If you do not have access to the journals described in the references, you can at least look at the paper abstract, which is always outside the paywall, to get a sense of what those earlier studies concluded. (For further caveats on references, see below.)

The acknowledgments are meant for transparency, to show the contributions of the various authors and where they got their funding from. Things to look for in here are whether they thank other scientists for “discussions” or “review” of the work; sometimes peer reviewers are explicitly acknowledged as such, in which case you can call those people right away for outside comment. Occasionally there are humorous tidbits that you can pick up on for a story, such as when authors thank the field-camp guards who kept them safe from predatory polar bears. The funding section is usually pro forma, but it is worth scanning for mention of unusual sources of income, such as from a science-loving philanthropist. If the authors declare competing financial interests (such as a patent filing) you will need to report those out and make sure you understand what financial conflicts of interest may be clouding their objectivity.

The methods often appear in a ridiculously small typeface after the body of the paper. These lay out how the actual experiments were done. Scour these for any details that will bring your story to life. For instance, they might describe how the climate models were so complicated that they took more than a year to run on one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

Supplementary information comes with some but not all papers. In most cases it is extra material that the journal did not want to devote space to describing in the paper itself. Always check it out, because there may be hidden gems. In a 2015 study of global lake warming, the only way to find out which specific lakes were warming—and talk about the nearest ones for readers—was to wade through the supplementary information. In another recent example, Harvard researchers left it to the supplementary information to explain that they cranked up a leaf-blower to see how lizards fared during hurricanes, a fact that the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein turned into his lede.

So now you’re armed with the basics of what makes up a science paper. How should you tackle reading for your next assignment? The task will be more manageable if you break it into a series of jobs.

 

Strategize During the First Pass

Your first dive into a paper should be aimed at gathering the most important information for your story—that is, what the research found and why anyone should care. For that, consider following the approach of Mark Peplow, a freelance science journalist in Cambridge, England, who writes for publications including Nature and Chemical & Engineering News.

If it’s a field he’s relatively familiar with, such as chemistry or materials science, Peplow takes a first pass through the paper, underlining with a red pen all the facts that are likely to make it into his initial draft. “That means I can produce a skeleton first draft of the story by simply writing a series of sentences containing what I’ve underlined, and then go into editing mode to jigsaw them into the right order,” he says. (In my annotated example, I’ve done this for the abstract using a purple pen.)

Courtesy of Alexandra Witze

Witze demonstrates the process she advises in this markup of a recent Science paper reporting evidence of liquid water on Mars. (Click to enlarge or print.)

As Peplow reads, he looks for numbers to help make the story sing (“… so porous that a chunk of material the size of a sugar cube contains the surface area of 17 tennis courts”—see orange highlighter in the annotated paper) and methodological details that might prompt a fun interview question (“How scary was it to be pouring that very hazardous liquid into another one?”). He also keeps an eye out for anything indicating an emerging trend or other examples of the same phenomenon, which can be useful for context within the story or as a forward-looking kicker (see how he pulls this off in this Chemical & Engineering News story).

But what if the paper is in a field you’re not experienced with, and you don’t understand the terminology? Peplow has a plan for that too. “I read the abstract, bathe in my lack of understanding, and mentally throw the abstract away,” he says.

Then he goes through the paper, underlining fragments he understands and putting wiggly lines next to paragraphs that he thinks sound important, but doesn’t actually know what they mean. Jargon words get circled, and equations ignored. He forges onward, paying attention to phrases such as “our findings,” “revealed,” “established,” or “our measurements show”—signs that these are the new and important bits. “Once I’ve reached the end of the paper, and I’m sure I don’t understand it, I remind myself it’s not my fault,” Peplow says.

At that point, Peplow starts looking up definitions for the jargon words, either with Google or Wikipedia or in a stack of science reference books he picked up for free when a local library closed. He jots definitions of the words on the paper. To understand concepts, he sometimes searches EurekAlert! for past press releases that explain core concepts, or Googles a string of keywords and adds “review” to hunt for a more comprehensible description.

By this point, Peplow can circle back to the paragraphs marked with wiggly lines and start to understand them better. What he doesn’t yet comprehend, he marks down as an interview question for the researcher.

 

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Circle Back for What You May Have Missed

Before picking up the phone for that interview, it’s worth making a second pass through the paper to see what else you need to help you in your reporting. Check, usually near the end of the paper, to see whether the scientists discuss what the next steps should be—either for their own team or for other groups following up to confirm or expand on the new results, says Perkins. That can provide a ready-made kicker for your story.

Susan Milius, a reporter who covers the life sciences for Science News, often makes a beeline straight for the references to try to start identifying outside commenters for a piece. She will find those PDFs and then look within the references’ references to build a broad understanding of the field. One caveat, though: Be sure to research how these possible commenters are connected to the author of the current study. Once, Milius phoned an outside commenter who had published on the topic in question some years earlier—but that scientist turned out to be the spouse of the new paper’s author. She had a different last name than her husband.

It’s also worth remembering that the authors may well be biased in which references they include in the paper. Self-citations, in which authors try to boost their citation count by adding their previous publications to the reference list, are common. And sometimes authors deliberately omit papers by competing groups, a fact that is not always caught during the peer-review process. So don’t rely on the references within the PDF to be comprehensive; try a Google Scholar search using keywords from the paper to unearth whether there are competing groups out there.

Other clues may lie in how long the manuscript took to make it through the peer-review process. For many journals these dates come at the very end of the paper, marked something like “submitted” and “accepted.” Different journals have different timescales for publishing, but it is always worth looking to see whether the manuscript languished an extraordinary amount of time (like many months) in the review process. If so, ask the author why things took so long. (A fairly innocuous way to do this is to say something like, “I noticed it took a while for this paper to be accepted. Can you tell me how that process went?” Then be prepared for the authors to go on a rant about peer review.)

 

It’s OK if there’s stuff you don’t understand in a paper you’re assigned to cover. You’ll figure out which parts you need to ask about.

 

Hunt for Extra Details

Finally, see if there are additional sources of information you can sweep into your reporting. Check to see if the author’s institution is issuing a press release about the work; if this isn’t already posted on EurekAlert!, ask the author during the interview if they are preparing additional press materials and, if so, how you can get hold of those. This is also a good time to ask for any art, such as photos or videos to illustrate your story. You will of course have already looked at all their figures in detail, so you’ll be well placed to request the art that is most relevant to what you and your editor are looking for.

With these tools at your side, you should be well suited to tackle your next scientific paper.

 

 

Courtesy of Alexandra Witze

Alexandra Witze

Alexandra Witze is a science journalist in Boulder, Colorado, and a member of The Open Notebook’s board of directors. Her news story on the Martian subglacial lake (marked up above) appeared in Nature. Follow her on Twitter @alexwitze.

One Comment

  1. H. Sila Nzioki says:

    writing a scientific paper made easy!

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