Read Scientific Articles Quickly and Effortlessly

grad school journal articles Aug 21, 2022
Reading scientific articles

Are you looking for a more effective way to read scientific articles? It can be difficult to understand the language and structure of journal articles and you can waste A LOT of time reading papers and trying to decipher details that you don't need. However, with some tips from an experienced research scientist, you can learn how to read them like a pro. In this guide, I walk you through the steps that will help you read scientific articles like a pro - quickly and effortlessly. Let's get started!

Know the structure and conventions

One of the first things you need to do when learning how to read a scientific paper is to understand its structure. Most papers follow a similar format. which includes an abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Each section serves a different purpose and can help you understand the study better.

  • Abstract - the most important section, contains a summary of the entire research article
  • Introduction - tells you the research question
  • Methods - tells you what the authors did
  • Results - tells you what the authors found out
  • Discussion - tells you how they interpret the results and what the significance is

Use the Abstract to assess the relevance

Don't read every article you come across. The abstract can help you determine whether the article is relevant to your research and the task at hand. Prioritize highly relevant articles over ones that are only tangentially related. That abstract should give you a good overview of the study and its findings and clearly indicate its relevance to you. If it doesn't, move on to another scientific paper.

You can't read absolutely everything. A key skill to develop when reading scientific papers is deciding what NOT to read. Make sure the paper is highly relevant to your research before you invest your time into it.


Skim the whole paper

Skim the paper first. When you sit down to read a scientific article, do not start from the beginning and read every word. That is not the most efficient way to get through the material. Instead, skim the entire paper before reading it in detail. This will give you a good overview of what the paper is about and help you better understand the details.

Reread the details

Now that you have a general understanding of the paper, it's time to go back and read it again. This time, pay attention to the details. Look up terms you are unfamiliar with. When you need clarity, refer back to earlier passages in the paper. Take notes (see below).

When reading a scientific paper, remember not to get too bogged down in the details. It is important to understand most of the details of the study, but don't let them hinder you. There will sometimes be cases where the misunderstanding has nothing to do with you, but a failing on the part of authors in presenting their data very clearly. Remember, you can always come back to an article, later on, to reread sections of it if you need to. At a later date, you may have the additional context you need to better understand some of the nuances of that research topic.

Pay close attention to the figures and tables, and their captions. These are usually very informative and can help you understand the data better. In many cases, they will also make the results more accessible than the text.

Skim first. Reread the details later. Skimming helps you understand the bigger picture before you really delve into the nitty-gritty.


Take (organized) notes: Create a Literature Review Matrix

Everyone has their preferred note-taking method for scientific literature. The important thing is to find a way that works for you and be consistent with it. You can find a good overview of some different strategies here. My preferred method of note-taking for scientific articles is charting, and I call this creating a Literature Review Matrix.

A Literature Review Matrix is simply a chart with the articles in rows, and the key information summarized in columns. The benefits of a Literature Review Matrix are that it:

  • helps you keep track of all the articles you read
  • reminds you to extract the most important information
  • helps you quickly find details when you need to recall and cite them

Below is an example of a general Literature Review Matrix. If you are interested in tracking other specific details, you can add additional columns.

An example of a Literature Review Matrix. A Literature Review Matrix helps you log the scientific papers you've read, encourages you to identify the most important information, and makes it easier to look up details when you need them later.


Read research papers like a pro

With these simple tips - skim first, reread details, and take organized notes - you can quickly get through scientific papers and better understand the research. Reading research papers does not have to be a daunting task.

Happy reading!

Dr Jayne


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Hi! I'm Dr Jayne Wilkins.

I'm a research scientist and academic publishing coach. I've been writing, reviewing, and editing academic publications for 12+ years.

In 2021, I achieved my long-time ambition to publish in Nature (woot woot 🎉).

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