How to Read a Paper: Where to Start and When to Stop

When a family member published his dissertation in a well-known journal, I couldn’t wait to read it. But after opening the link he posted on our family chat app, I was quickly overwhelmed. The article was on statistical models—unfamiliar territory for me—and the premise felt indecipherable, with figures that may as well have been crop circles. Thankfully, another family member was just as confused as I was. “How do I read this?” they typed.

“How do I read this?” is a question frequently asked about scientific journal articles. Even the most astute among us can find them confusing. And yet, well-written and well-sourced articles on scientifically-robust research or experiments are invaluable primary sources of authoritative information. When vetted by reputable sources, these articles can be the backbone of a copywriting project, marketing campaign, or conference presentation.

Reading scientific articles comes easier over time and with little help from experts. We’ll briefly cover different categories of scientific journal articles and review an expert’s helpful explanation of how to read a journal article for complete understanding—and when to stop reading.

Journal article context

Just like navigating the streets of a new city, reading a journal article is easier when you have context. Part of that is knowing there are different types of scientific literature, and the journal article on your laptop or reading desk will look different depending on its purpose.

Elsevier, a scientific journal publisher, divides scientific literature into three distinct categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary scientific literature articles, or “papers,” are the culmination of research. Secondary scientific literature relies on papers to summarize or synthesize information, and tertiary scientific literature presents information from primary and secondary sources to a more general audience.[i]

This discussion focuses on papers. Unlike a book or a blog, where headers and chapters fluctuate based on the content, papers all must follow a similar formula: abstract (summary), introduction (context), methods (experiment), results (data) and conclusion (discussion). This formula, driven by logic and established by tradition, neatly organizes all of the information.    

Permission granted to stop reading

Unlike a book or this blog, you get the gist of a paper without reading the entire thing. According to S. Kerchav’s “How to Read a Paper,” it’s okay not to read a paper from beginning to end. In fact, it may serve your time and energy best to stop reading after your first pass—reading the title, abstract, introduction, sub-section headers and conclusions and perusing the references.[ii]

Once you’ve completed the first pass, you can decide whether or not to continue reading. Consider what type of paper it is, its context, whether the assumptions are valid, what it adds (or doesn’t) to the scientific landscape, who wrote it, and whether it is well-written.ii Depending on your conclusions, you can decide to continue or stop.

How to understand a paper

If you decide to continue reading, your second pass is where the hard work starts. During your second pass, you’ll review the figures and references and summarize the paper’s content to someone else.ii We can call this the Significant Other (SO) test. Whether your SO is your partner, cat, or the houseplant on your desk, audibly tell them the paper’s meaning and how the authors reached their conclusions. Verbalizing your thoughts will help you understand what you’ve read.

The third (and final) pass is the most difficult of all. The third pass is where you try to re-create the authors’ experiment in your mind’s eye, testing each of their assumptions and uncovering innovations and failures. Attempt this third pass only if it is research you intend to follow or continue.ii

Papers are intimidating, and rightly so. They represent hours, often years, and sometimes decades of the authors’ hard work. Also, any paper published in a well-regarded journal has passed rigorous reviews. Reading the paper is possible, though, once you get your bearings and understand where to start and when, if needed, to stop.

[i]Types of scientific articles. Elsevier. Accessed September 14, 2022.  

[ii]Keshav S. How to read a paper. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review. 2007;37(3):83-84. 

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