Disclaimer: I am in no way saying this is the only way to learn to read scientific journal articles or texts. But this worked very well for me, and I hope you will get something out of it too! If you’re more experienced in this area, how did you learn to read journal articles? Shoot me a message!
When I first entered the academic community I was very overwhelmed by the length and level of detail that most journal articles contained. As time went on, I grew to love reading papers, even in fields I have no real familiarity with. How did that happen, you might ask? Basically, I learned to skim, for lack of a more accurate term… Really I would call it “strategic skimming,” though. It’s a skill that’s served me well, and now I want to teach you how to begin doing it, so that you too can begin to read science like a scientist (or at least a STEM student)!
Step 1: What Interests You?
Pick an area you think is interesting, it doesn’t matter how much or little you know about it at first, but this won’t work if you’re just bored.
Step 2: Build a Foundation
Do some very basic research about the topic. If you’re interested in ecology, you’d probably want to know the definition of ecology, some information about evolution and speciation, and maybe even a bit about modern practices, or the geologic time scale. This can come from anywhere: articles, books, talking to someone well versed, or even Wikipedia (shhh).
Step 3: Start a Search
Hopefully you feel a bit more confident now, but if not, don’t fear, you’re probably just underestimating yourself! Now is the time for your foray into scientific journals (or texts, if you prefer).
I recommend starting off using a tool like Google Scholar or Web of Knowledge, where you can type in a very broad term, like “ecology” and see scholarly publications related to your area of interest. From there, browse some titles and see if anything peaks your interest.
Step 4: Pick a Journal Article
You can simply select any article whose title interests you, but it may serve you best when you’re still in the beginning stages of reading journal articles to pick a journal that has a “high journal impact factor.” Here is an article that explains impact factors in depth (https://researchguides.uic.edu/if/impact), but I’ll just briefly say that essentially, the higher the impact factor, the more well known the journal. This often correlates with the length of articles (more stringent page limits in some cases) and level of language difficulty (while studies will be very complex and high level, they will be written less “technically” than some smaller, more niche journals). For quick reference, Nature has an impact score of over 40.
*Now, I’m not saying that high impact journals are the only ones worth reading, I don’t feel that way AT ALL. But in my opinion, they are the easiest place to start (and access, they’re often free). For your first few papers, I’d recommend a journal with an impact factor of 12+. Later in your journey, I highly recommend checking out some smaller journals because they are filled with amazing discoveries and breakthroughs in lesser known fields and deserve as much recognition as everyone else.*
Once you’ve identified the journal, simply pick any article that catches your eye.
Step 5: The Abstract
Consider abstracts the “Spark Notes” of journal articles. In other words, if you only read the abstract you could probably have a 2 minute discussion about the article with your classmates, but if your teacher busts out a pop quiz, you just might be utterly doomed. Abstracts typically introduce the study’s purpose, its system (what they are experimenting on or observing), what was done, and what they found - all in one or two short paragraphs. Reading an abstract is a great way to tell if you’ll be interested in diving further into the article or not. It’s a great tool because it’s written by the researchers so it will summarize what they think is most important to know in order to understand their findings. But don’t expect to get a well-rounded view of an entire article just by reading the abstract.
Step 6: The Meat of It
Engage > strategic skimming. Go through each section, but not with a fine toothed comb. Jot down words you don’t know to look up later (or Google as you go, though I find this can disrupt my concentration). Re-read things you don’t understand at first, but try to avoid getting frustrated or bogged down. I know it can be hard sometimes, but you got this!
I’ll now go through the typical sections of a scientific journal article and what they usually contain/what you should pay attention to:
Introduction - will tell you about the study species or system; will provide necessary background information; will provide a “need” for the study’s completion; will review previous studies and literature; will go through hypotheses (generally nondirectional) and predictions (directional); etc.
Methods - will tell you what they did, sometimes this is at the end of the paper. If it’s at the end of the paper, this may mean the researchers went very in depth and an average reader may not need to know the details to understand the paper (or that could just be the journal’s layout). May also discuss what statistical analyses they used to determine significance or lack thereof.
Results - will tell you what they found, often associated with figures (see Step 7).
Discussion/Conclusion - will announce significance if applicable; will put results into context; will compare their results to those of other researchers; will discuss biases or issues; will mention future research topics or ideas; will wrap it all up with a pretty bow (sometimes).
References - see Step 8.
Step 7: The Figures
While it may be tempting to skip over figures that look confusing or irrelevant, this is a mistake. The researchers carefully created these figures to present their results visually, and if you’re willing to take the time to analyze them (and READ THE CAPTIONS) you may gain a better understanding of the study’s outcome, which can be quite valuable.
Step 8: The References
This is where the scientists got their literature review/comparison information. This is a great place to look for more articles about similar topics, or to find “classic” articles.
Step 9: Read It Again?
If you really enjoyed the paper you selected, I suggest you go back and read it again, and I mean really read it. Before you do so, I recommend looking up any words or concepts you didn’t understand on the first go around. If you are having trouble finding information, you can email questions to the corresponding author whose contact is usually at the top of the article. That said, try to find the answers yourself before reaching out, as they are likely getting lots of emails if they were published in a high impact journal.
Anyway, that’s how I learned to read scientific journal articles. I hope this will provide some useful guidance for getting started. A big part of increasing scientific literacy is encouraging the public to read journals. But how can we ask people to do that when they're clearly not written for non-professionals, in many cases? Like everything, there has to be give and take. Scientists need to focus energy on presenting their results in an accessible way, but we all need to do our part to educate ourselves about scientific discovery, too. If you don't feel ready to fully engage with journals, there are many sites that summarize findings in a more compact, less technical way. I have listed a few of those resources below. If you have any questions, drop me an email using the form below!