COVID19 Demystified is all about us reading scientific papers and giving you, our readers, a breakdown of the critical findings, conclusions and limitations. That being said, there are plenty of papers out there that aren’t on COVID19, and those papers are pretty awesome.
In this post, I’m going to walk you through the basic steps of how to read a scientific paper, what to look out for, and where to look if you need to get the basic information fast. Let’s use this paper from UW as an example. We summarized this paper in this post a few months ago.
First thing’s first, let’s understand what we have here.
Presenting: The Anatomy of a Paper.
(To follow along with this part, open the PDF of the paper. The paper on the cell website is a summarized version)
Titles are usually short and to the point. They often summarize the main conclusion of the paper, which is always helpful. In the case of this paper, the title gives away the conclusion: they detected a very strong neutralizing antibody response after immunization with their RSV vaccine (made of protein nanoparticles)
This paper has a hefty author list. The important things to take away from the author list are the name of the P.I. (in this case, Neil King). “P.I.” stands for principal investigator, the “boss” of the lab group. Their name is usually at the end of the author’s list. Another thing the author’s list gives us is an appreciation of how many people are involved in each research project.
The names in an author’s list are usually ordered by who did the most work. The first author (the first name on the list) is generally the person who took lead on the project. The last name, the P.I., is the person in charge of the lab.
What this paper calls ‘Summary,’ other papers call the ‘Abstract.’ The abstract is a summary of the research. A good abstract will go over the topic of research, the main question the researchers are trying to answer and the previous research in the field. It will also go through the reason for the research (why it’s important), give a basic explanation of the methods and go through the main findings and conclusions. An abstract will also explain why the findings are significant.
The introduction serves as a quick overview of the field. It explains the problem the researchers are trying to solve. In this case, the problem is trying to find a vaccine candidate for RSV. The introduction also goes through previous work in the field, such as efforts to study surface proteins of RSV and prior vaccine efforts.
Most results sections will be divided into sub-sections. Each sub-section goes through the results of a different set of experiments, with each set trying to answer a particular question or solve a particular sub-problem. The results section is a great way to observe the stepwise nature of science. That being said, this section will also likely be the most jargon-heavy section of a given paper.
In the results section, make sure to take a look at the graphs and charts. In this paper, Figure 1 is an awesome picture of the nanoparticle vaccine that the researchers developed.
In the discussion, the researchers summarize their findings again and, most importantly, talk about the importance of these findings. The discussion is where the researchers turn their findings into conclusions and further questions and back up their conclusions with other research in the field.
The discussion is also where the researchers present possible limitations of their work- this part is important! Discussing the limitations of a study is critical to understanding what can and cannot be concluded from the findings. Limitations can include having a small sample size, a lack of prior research in the area or there not being a lot of other data out there. In the case of COVID19, which is a new virus that we’ve only just started to study, lack of prior research or limited data available are both very common limitations.
It’s important to realize that every study has limitations and that mentioning limitations doesn’t mean that a paper is bad. For more information on limitations in research, check out this site.
This is also the section where the scientists talk about the best part of research- further studies. Every time we do science we end up raising more questions than we answer- and the discussion is the place to put these questions out to the rest of the scientific community.
Finally, the last paragraph of the discussion usually summarizes the conclusions of the study. The researchers will quickly recap the important things that they found out and talk about why those findings are important for the future of the field.
Some journals structure papers with the discussion and conclusion together, so that the last paragraph of the discussion gives the concluding remarks of the paper. In other journals, however, the conclusion will be a separate section at the end of the paper. Either way, the conclusion serves the same purpose- it’s a wrap-up of the key findings of the study and future questions that have been raised.
The reference section is a list of other papers that are relevant to the study. If you want to find out more about the field, or you want to look into the papers that are being cited, this is the place to find that information.
In this paper, the methods follow the references. In other papers, the methods may show up earlier, depending on the journal. The methods section is made for other scientists who want to try and replicate some of the group’s findings, or who want to study something similar and want a guideline to work off of. It’s worth checking out a paper’s method’s section to see how clear and detailed it is- a good paper will have methods that are detailed enough for other groups to carry out the same experiment themselves.
“Okay,” I can hear you saying, “but how do I read a paper?!”
Part 1: Background checking the paper
Just like buying something online or starting a new Netflix show, it’s important to do some background research before diving into the paper. Doing background research helps us make sure that the paper is from a reputable source, that the data in it is well-accepted by the scientific community and that the information it is presenting is solid and sound. There are two main things we can do as part of this background check.
- Check the journal
“Journal” refers to the publication that is putting the paper out there. In the case of our example paper, the journal is Cell. Take some time to google the journal. What you’re looking for is its overall reputation- does the journal have a peer review process in place? Is it legitimate?
If you want you can check out a journal’s impact factor, a number that represents how often papers from that journal are cited in a given year. As useful as this number is, be careful about using impact factor as your only yardstick for journal quality. Sometimes a journal may represent a very specific field that’s relatively small when it comes to the larger picture of science. In this case, the journal would have a low impact factor when compared to other journals that publish science from larger fields. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the lower impact factor journal is lower quality.
More than the impact factor, checking the journal is important because of the existence of predatory journals. These predatory journals are to science what vanity presses are to literature. Predatory journals publish articles for a publishing fee. They don’t follow academic publishing standards and often don’t have editorial or peer review processes in place. This means that the data being presented in a predatory journal can’t always be trusted. A list of known predatory journals can be found here. If the paper you’re looking at is from a predatory journal, steer away.
2. Check Twitter.
This one probably seems a bit odd, but bear with me. Especially if you first saw the paper on Twitter, it might be worth seeing what the rest of the Twittersphere is saying about it. This is because there’s a very big scientific community on Twitter and reading the comments might help you see the sort of feedback that the research is getting from other researchers. See a lot of comments questioning the methods, results or conclusions? Then take caution.
Some journals (Cell included), will have a little ‘metrics’ pop-up on the online version of their papers:
Clicking on this button will give you all sorts of information on the paper’s internet presence, including mentions in the news, on blogs and twitter. It’s a good way to get a quick overview of the scientific reception that a paper is getting.
Part 2: Reading the paper
Technically, the best way to read a paper is to start at the beginning and read the whole thing. That being said, some papers can be very long. If you want to get the gist of a paper, the things to read are and keep in mind:
- Title: What’s the point the paper’s trying to make? What is the conclusion?
- Abstract: What is the key question of the paper? How did they go about answering this question? What conclusions did they draw? How does this change our understanding of the science?
- Discussion: Are the conclusions backed up by the results? Can you tell if the findings line up with what’s known in the field? If not, how do the researchers explain this? What are the limitations of the study?
- Figures: Does the interpretation of the results (what the researchers say the results are showing) match up with what the results actually show? For example, if the researchers say that condition A causes an increase in parameter X when compared to condition B, does the graph of this experiment show an increase between conditions A and B?
While you’re reading the paper, write down or highlight any words you don’t understand. Research papers are written for scientists, by scientists, which means they often have a lot of jargon. Looking up the meaning of these weird words can help us better understand what’s going on in the paper and can prevent misinterpretation. By putting in this extra work, we can better educate ourselves and make sure that we aren’t adding to the tsunami of misinformation out there.
Pay special attention to the conclusions and limitations. Does it look like the limitations of a study might impact the conclusions being drawn (for example, making a big conclusion off of a study with a limited sample size)?
Finally, write down what you learned or any lingering questions! At the end of the day, science is about learning new things. As we learn more about the world, we usually end up finding more of the world to learn about. The scientific method starts with asking a question, and very often it ends with asking a new question. Reading papers is a good way to engage with this method, and to bring some of that scientific knowledge into your life and the lives of the people around you.
I hope this quick little primer on the anatomy of a paper and how to dissect one was helpful. Now go forth and read the science- there’s a lot of cool stuff out there to find!