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This week in Science 101, we’ll be talking about reading scientific literature, a crucial skill for any science student. Biology major, Alex Tang, and astrophysics major, Briley Lewis, are here with some advice for tackling those articles with intimidating-sounding titles.

Scientific research is conducted by a broad international community, a network of university labs, research institutes, and industrial companies around the world. Like any community, scientists have to communicate with each others, in this case via published articles in scientific journals. These papers document the latest experiments, methods, and advances in a given area, and are critical for staying on top of current research in any scientific field.

If you are working or volunteering in a research lab on campus, or enrolled in a research seminar, you’ll have to delve deep into the scientific literature of your field. Oftentimes, the articles you’ll find are dense and filled with terms or concepts you aren’t quite familiar with. Here are some tips and strategies that a budding scientist could use when initially tackling published science articles.

Focus on the abstract, figures, and conclusions.
Research papers vary in length, but some of them can be quite long and difficult to wade through. The abstract is a paragraph-long summary that will give you the purpose and results of a paper, and is useful to skim over quickly when looking to find papers that are relevant to your objectives. When you do find a paper that you want to read carefully, pay particular attention to the figures and conclusions sections. Together, these sections will give you the data and experimental results, the most important part of any research project.

Circle recurring words and concepts that you don’t know.
Chances are, if you see a certain phrase repeated over again, it’s important. Each area in science uses a specialized language that will take time to get acclimated to. A few quick Google searches can clear up a lot of confusion when understanding a paper. If you find a paper that seems particularly significant to you, make sure you understand the experimental methods used in the project. It’s always a good idea to learn about the latest and most significant procedures and methods in your field.

Think big picture.
Everyone tends to notice the huge breakthroughs in science (think CRISPR or Higgs boson), but most of science happens in small increments of progress. Lots of papers tend to be extremely specific, dealing with particularly narrow projects that focus on a manageable scientific inquiry. Make sure to search for the broader significance of every research project you’re engaged in, as well as the projects of the papers you read. For example, ask how the project is contributing to humanity overall, and how the science could be applied to something that could be of practical use in the long run. Thinking big picture is a great way of maintaining your enthusiasm for science, and for asking the important research questions.

Don’t get bogged down by every detail.
This tip is related to the last point. As an undergraduate student, you’re still learning the scientific basics, so it’s impossible to understand everything in papers written by professors and advanced graduate students. Make sure that you have a firm grasp of your paper’s objectives, methods, and results. However, if there’s an organic pathway or a complicated derivation that you’re unsure of, you can just skim over it if doesn’t affect your general grasp of the paper. The key here is to read selectively and efficiently, highlighting the details that matter, and skimming over those that don’t matter as much. However, if you find a paper that might be fundamental to your own research, then you’ll need to have a deeper understanding of the details, which leads to our next point.

Don’t be afraid to ask your professor or an older student for help.
Whether you’re in a research lab or seminar (or even reading a paper for fun), you’re surrounded by countless people who are the pioneers of their scientific fields. Be able to articulate what exactly you don’t understand about a paper, and ask someone for clarification. They were in your shoes once, and will be more than happy to help.

Look for questions that still need to be answered.
Reading scientific papers is an excellent way to find future research projects. After reading various scientific articles in a specific field, you’ll notice major questions that the papers tend to address. If you read a paper, and are left with another question, see if another paper has an answer to it! If not, you might be the one publishing the answer eventually! Again, think big picture, and ask questions that really matter (see tip #3).

nature via phys.org