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The Non-Scientist’s Guide to Reading and Understanding a Scientific Paper

Highlights:
More than 2.5 million new English-language scientific papers are published each year in more than 28,000 peer-review journals.
While many are paywalled, there are also prestigious open-access journals where you can read articles for free.
Reading articles will help you make more informed decisions in the areas of life that concern you, and better understand and participate in the public debate about important scientific issues.
Here are the basic steps: focus on the big picture the scientists are addressing; read the Abstract, Introduction, and Discussion, in that order; think critically about the conclusions the scientists make; conduct follow-up research.
For practice, we provide a link to a popular scientific paper on light-emitting e-readers.

We live in a golden age of scientific research. The top five countries in scientific research and development — the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, and South Korea, respectively — spend over $1 trillion on it each year. But where do all the resulting discoveries and eureka! moments go? Eventually they may find their way into textbooks or form the foundation of a life-saving therapeutic, but first most of them they go onto the page, in a scientific article.

According to a report by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (available for download here), more than 2.5 million new English-language scientific papers are published each year in more than 28,000 verified journals that use the stringent “peer review” system, whereby multiple scientists who are specialists in the relevant field of study provide a critical and in-depth review of a new paper. The process takes months and is overseen by a journal editor and several reviewers who read the study; only once the editor is convinced the author has addressed notes from peer reviewers in such categories as originality, importance, manner of presentation, and critical flaws, is it accepted into a journal.

The most common form of scientific article is a primary research article, an original report of research which chronicles an experiment in such a way that it can be replicated and the results reproduced by other scientists — core tenets of the scientific method. (Another type is a review article, where several primary research articles are discussed and their findings placed in greater context.)

The internet has made disseminating that sea of scientific information easier than ever, one result of which is a deluge of “A Groundbreaking New Study Finds…” headlines on websites and in magazines. While overly reductive reporting on scientific breakthroughs is not new to the media — the general public has at times felt whipsawed by science and health reporting for decades — the total quantity of scientific research and media sources is only increasing. More often than not, those articles grab the biggest “finding” and speculate on what it might mean a decade into the future, which often falls short of explaining the study in context and helping readers form an educated understanding of what the scientific research actually showed.

So how do you distinguish hyperbole from scientific evidence? By reading the papers yourself.

That’s not easy, even for scientists, who readily admit that reading these papers can be akin to torture. (A recent article in Science, enumerating the steps of reading a paper, included “fear,” “regret,” “bafflement,” “distraction,” and “rage.”) Rather than charging headfirst into several thousand words of science-speak, follow this plan of attack for primary research articles. With a little practice, you can do more than just understand them: you can replace conventional wisdom with knowledge, make more informed decisions in the areas of life that concern you most — health, fitness, and diet, for example — and better understand and participate in the public debate about important scientific issues.

Editor’s Note: To illustrate the process, we’ve chosen a popular scientific paper published in 2015 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness.” You can access the paper for free here.

1. Locate the Article

You’ll likely begin your search one of two ways: either by tracking down a paper cited in a news story (in which case: Google), or by searching for papers on a topic that interests you. The highest profile sources of peer-reviewed articles are Nature, a British journal, and Science, its American competitor. But there are credible journals for every branch and sub-branch of science. The best place to find those is on PubMed.gov, a database holding more than 27 million citations to credible journals.

Note that many scientific papers are not available for free. In a 2015 list of the most influential primary research papers by AltMetric, 42 were open access and 58 were paywalled. Paywalls are a source of frustration for a large swath of the general public (including academia, industry, and media), who argue that open access to research hastens innovation — and indeed that the public has a right to access the research it funds with tax dollars. This friction between publishers and everyone else has given rise to a variety of responses, including open-access journals, the search engine Sci-Hub, and policies from funding sources, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that require research to be disseminated to the public free of charge.

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