When I was in college, I read my first scientific paper. I don’t think I can recall the EXACT first paper, but I remember a project where we had to learn about a topic of our choice and then write about what is known, what isn’t know, and what experiments we would do next. It was so traumatic that to this day I remember that I read and wrote about G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). These GPCRs are a diverse set of genes that make proteins that transport molecules into and out of the cell, but they only do this in response to a particular signal. It’s as if the GPCR is a door, but a door that only let’s people in or out when someone pushes a button. But I digress. In college, reading these papers was like reading James Joyce – I knew that it was in English and that the words made up sentences, but it was incredible difficult to figure out what all of the sentences meant. It was even harder to grasp the “big picture” ideas in the paper, and just forget about understanding all of the data!
But like all things, understanding a scientific paper takes practice, but isn’t impossible. It’s all about learning enough of the vocabulary and scientific background to start to understand what the sentences mean, and then getting an idea of how a paper is structured to better find the big picture ideas. The whole point of a scientific paper is for the researchers who performed the research to explain what they did (the experiments), show in detail the results of these experiments, and then describe what it all means.
So what does a scientific paper look like? It has six main parts
- Abstract: although I’m not sure why it’s called an “abstract” because sometimes it’s the most clear part of the paper. This is essentially a summary of the question the researcher asked (the hypothesis), why the hypothesis is interesting or important to know the answer to, what they did to test this hypothesis, what the results are and why the results are important. And you have to do all of this in ~500 words.
- Introduction: this section talks about what is already known in the field. This is also where the authors specifically say what isn’t known and what they are trying to figure out through the experiments in the paper.
- Materials and Methods: This section describes in detail how the experiments were done. As an analogy, if a scientific paper is the menu at a restaurant, the Materials and Methods section is a list of all of the recipes. There are a few reasons that this section exists – first, scientists reading the paper need to know if the experiment was done correctly so they know whether or not to trust the results. Second, if a researcher ever wants to repeat the experiment, these recipes should provide enough information to do so.
- Results. This is the meat of the paper, or in the restaurant analogy, the meal itself. Results are described in words. For example, in the famous elementary school experiment making a volcano, the results would say “when we added 1 cup of vinegar to 1 tablespoon of baking soda, 2 cups of foaming liquid erupted from the volcano.” Results are also shown using figures and tables. A figure would be a picture of the erupting volcano and a table may include the amount of liquid that erupted from the volcano each of the 3 times that you did the experiment. In scientific papers, the number of tables and figures varies, but usually there are 3 or more figures, each of which may have multiple parts. An example of a figure from a journal called PLOS ONE is below. Accompanying all tables and figures is a legend describing what the table and figure means.
- Discussion. After all of the results have been presented, the authors then discuss what they might mean. In the case of the volcano experiment, the discussion may include a sentence like “More foamy liquid was produced when more baking soda and vinegar were used but not when baking soda was added to water, indicating that the chemical reaction with the vinegar is critical to creating the foamy eruption.” Usually the discussion is where you can find the “big picture” meaning of the research and get an idea of what may be missing. Scientists typically say what the limitations of their study are and indicate what kind of experiments come next.
- References. In addition to all of the text, scientific papers include links to other scientific papers that were used as a basis for their work or to support the results or conclusions. These are a great resource to read to find out what’s important in that specific field and most of the time when I read papers, I end up in a rabbit hole of additional reading!
To give you an idea of what a paper looks like, see here. You can also check out some open access journals that give 100% free access to all of the published papers, like PLOS Biology. Scientific papers are not written for the public. They will look to you a lot like they looked to me when I first started reading scientific papers over 15 years ago. But in future posts, I will provide information on where to find information about current research in journals that is more accessible.