How to Read a Scientific Journal Article: Section by Section.

how to read scientific journal articles: a section by section guide

So you’re ready to learn how to read a scientific journal article? You’re ready to tackle the big bad world of science? You might want to read the latest research and get your head around rapidly evolving scientific developments.

Or, you might also just be here to get on top of your university assignments.

As I mentioned in my essay writing tips, it can be super daunting jumping into your first year at university and being told you can no longer use any old websites as references in your essays.

You have to use scientific journal articles (or scientific literature) to back up statements that you make.

You need to learn – very quickly! – how to navigate and understand a scientific journal article.

For some reason though, this is never taught in undergraduate courses – you are instead just thrown in the deep end.

And on top of this, you will probably have to start writing up your research reports in a similar format (if you’re in a scientific discipline).

So today, let’s talk about how to read a scientific journal article, section by section.

how to read scientific journal articles: a section by section guide

What is a Journal Article?

A scientific journal article is a piece of writing by a group of scientists, which tells you about specific experiments or research they have completed.

These articles can be found in Google Scholar, or any other scientific database that your discipline likes most (like PubMed or ScienceDirect).

Journal articles undergo a rigorous (and very lengthy!) submission process before being published. Articles are only accepted into a journal when they met specific standards and pass a peer-review process (where other scientists critique the work and make comments/suggestions).

Because of this process, they are one of the most highly regarded sources of information.

Journal Articles can take a few forms.

A typical research article will explain and document a particular experiment (or series of experiments), in a way that any scientist can replicate it. There is usually an introduction to the experiment (with all background information), a very detailed procedure, results of the experiment, and what it means for outside in the real world.

A review article is a recap of previously completed research, and doesn’t include a new experiment in itself. These articles collate and organise old research in the aim of answering a specific research question. They often include an introduction to the problem, and multiple paragraphs with subheadings to explore different aspects of the problem.

Case Studies look over one particular instance of an event, disease, or person in order to better understand and document one specific phenomenon.

Typically, you will be most likely met with experiment or review articles.

As a Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience major, I am most familiar with the format of articles in these fields, but there is typically a standard structure in which most articles follows: abstract, introduction, method, results and discussion.

I will take you through each section so that next time, you know exactly how to read a scientific journal article.

So what’s included in each section?

How to read a scientific journal article: section-by-section.

Research articles can sometimes be very long – so it’s important to know what you’re looking for and what you need when you are researching.

Each section of the research article will tell you something specific about the work, and sometimes you won’t need to read all of it, so it’s important that you know where to look.

Abstract

The abstract sits at the top of the article and will give you a run down of the entire paper in less than 300 words.

It is basically a very condensed version of the entire research article, with a sentence summarising each sub-section of the report. It will give you a super speedy overview of the background of the project, the method and all of the results.

If you are searching on Google Scholar or other databases, this is the part of the research article that you will be able to read before downloading the whole thing.

It gives you an insight into the rest of the article.

Reading the abstract will let you know whether the research article has what you are looking for, and whether a full-length read will be worth your time.

Introduction

If you are unfamiliar with the topic of the research article, the introduction is where you need to be.

These first few paragraphs will give you background information about the experiment.

Here, the researchers tell you why they decided to create their experiment.

The introduction often explains other research work, in order to create a basis for the current experiment. They talk about what has previously been found, and what is missing from knowledge.

This section will also likely explain why the research is important to society – how would the world benefit from this experiment?

It also often gives the rationale for the way in which the experiment was conducted.

The introduction should be written in a way that seems almost like the first chapter of a novel, setting up the scenes and the context for what is to come.

After reading this section, you will have a better understanding of the larger field in which this research is based, but you can also use other work that the researcher has referenced here to expand your knowledge.

Method

Participants

This (often short) paragraph let’s you know who was involved in the study, how many, where they were recruited, their ages, gender, and any other criteria that was important for the study.

How participants are included/excluded is very important to the results, and heavily influences what conclusions and generalisations can be drawn from the research.

Participant numbers are also very important in making sure that you can make larger, over-arching conclusions from research.

Materials and Design

This section is the recipe for the experiment!

It lets you know what materials were used (questionnaires, EEG, computer paradigms) and what you might need to replicate the experiment.

It is important that scientists document exactly every little detail of their experiments, in order for others to critically evaluate their work.

While scientific journal articles are rigorously reviewed before publication, some methods or ways of working may be more ‘correct’ than others.

It is important for this information to be shared, so that people can make informed decisions about the results.

It also makes it easier for other scientists to build on past experiments, or tweak certain aspects to answer new questions.

Procedure

Here is the exact step-by-step for the experiment.

This is what the researchers did, and when, and how far apart, and on what day, and with which piece of equipment.

This part will be important for you if you’re looking to replicate the experiment for yourself.

It’ll also be the place to be if you need to critically evlauate the experiment (say, for an assignment) as you’ll need to pick apart exactly what was done.

If you’re reading an article for the results, this isn’t the section you need.

Results

Finally, something new and exciting!

The results section gives you the numbers.

After the scientists ran all of their experiments, and crunched the numbers, this is what they got. It might also show you some pretty pictures (figures and tables).

It does little to explain why, and simply presents all the statistics and calculations that were done. If you like maths, it’s where you want to be.

If you are unfamiliar with statistics, this section can be very overwhelming.

It contains the results of t-tests, ANOVAs, means, standard deviations, effect sizes and p-values.

See? Overwhelming!

If you want to learn more about statistics in science, have a look at my blog post here.

Otherwise for now, just know that all the heavy numbers are here. While you might need them to break down the experiment and truly assess it’s validity, often times you can be safe just skimming this area, if you are simply looking for the meaning behind it all!

If you are just starting your psychology degree, rest assured that as you continue through, you will become more familiar with these terms.

Figures

The results section often includes figures.

Figures are diagrams, graphs or schematics of the results or are sometimes also included in the methods section to better explain how to run a procedure.

A figure should convey a maximal amount of information using the smallest amount of ink, and give readers an opportunity to see the data in a different way.

Figures are often referred to in the paragraphs, but allow researchers to show their results in a more straight-forward way.

Tables

Tables may also appear here!

These allow researchers to present a large array of numbers, percentages or measurements in as few lines as possible.

They are often included as additional information as they show means, observations or values from a larger number of individuals or show all results when only a few are meaningful or important.

In many cases, these are ‘read more’ options, and not compulsory to forming a basic understanding the research article as a whole.

Discussion

Ahhh, finally the good stuff!

The discussion is where it’s at.

Time to learn what the results actually were (aside from the maths), and get a deeper understanding of what they mean for the world outside.

The discussion section usually starts with an overview of the results (in normal non-number talk).

“The study showed that this was higher than that… these people scored better than this… this chemical was better at doing that….”

The researchers will explain whether their findings are similar or in opposition to previous research that has been conducted.

If their findings are contrasting, they can often try to explain why this might be the case.

Whether consistent or contrasting results are encountered, researchers will explain what these mean for the wider community.

Do the results have negative or positive impacts… and what should be done because of the findings?

For example this might include: how do the results change any of our previous beliefs about the world? How should they change treatment choices? How should they direct government funding? How do they change health recommendations?

Each study may have numerous effects on the world outside the lab.

In this section, researchers will also explain any short-comings in their experiment. Nothing is ever perfect. Things can always be improved.

Researchers may also give recommendations for future research and questions still unanswered. They could also suggest ways in which their study could be built upon.

The discussion will also conclude with a sweet little paragraph summarising the whole article. This last paragraph will sum up exactly what the researchers want you to take away from their work.

References

As I previously mentioned, scientists may reference other scientists when introducing you to their project, or when attempting to explain their results.

An experiment may also have used questionnaires, paradigms or equipment created by other people (that requires referencing!).

That is why all scientific articles will conclude with a reference list. This gives readers easy access to other sources of information, which they can fall down the rabbit hole with!

The scientific world is a constant state of iteration.

Developing new ideas and building upon old work involves the constant sharing of information, and by allowing people to explore every old idea and building block themselves, it is hoped that articles can spark new ideas in budding researchers.

If you haven’t, make sure to look at my referencing guide to learn the best way to create your own reference list for essays. It will make your assignment writing a breeze!

And that’s it! You’ve made it.

Now you know how to read a scientific journal article.

It can be at first be a tricky maze to tackle.

But as you continue on, you will find yourself becoming a more experienced explorer. You will very quickly develop a better understanding of which sections are important for you and your own research.

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