Academic Papers as a Learning Method

Probably one of the toughest things I had to do as an undergraduate was learn how to read scholarly journal articles. Unfortunately, for those who are in the sciences, these papers are the primary means for communication of scientific questions and results. They are also an effective way for students to learn concepts and techniques common in their field. Although I claim no mastery of reading academic literature, I have learned a few tips over the last few years that I hope will be of help to any who read this. These tips will probably also apply to the other sciences.

When you want to read an article, I recommend having a pen in had to underline parts you think are especially important or that teach things you want to remember (or be able to refer to in the future). Remove all distractions. I usually listen to music when I work. When I need to read a paper, that's a bad idea. I've also found that reading aloud helps me to focus and think about what I'm reading. You can't expect this to be a speed read. It takes time, focus, and patience to succeed.

Those who, like me, are relatively new to their field, should make an effort to read entire papers. Sometimes it is tempting to just look at the figures. Although this is okay in a pinch, I have found that a single paper can help familiarize me with a lot of information if I take the time to read it from beginning to end. That being said, not all the sections are created equally, so I'll explain what I think is the relative use and importance of each of them.

  1. Start with the title - Sounds obvious, doesn't it? The title, when well written, can tell you a lot about what the paper will--and will not--contain.
  2. Read the abstract - If you're lucky, this little overview of the paper will give you all you need to know about that subject. It will almost certainly help you decide whether or not it is worth your time to keep reading.
  3. Look over the figures - Herein is the story of the paper. The figures represent the findings of the study, and, if they are properly labeled, should contain enough information to allow readers with some familiarity of the field to understand those findings.
  4. Introduction - These sections I have found particularly valuable in helping me become familiar with my field of neuronal dynamics and electrophysiology. The authors usually start with some very general statements and then narrow their focus. Introductions contain a lot of references which can be helpful if you're looking for other, related papers in your field.
  5. Discussion/Conclusions - This is similar to the introduction, except it is aimed at the future, not the past.
  6. Results - The importance of the results depends on who is reading them. As someone trying to understand the background and experiments, the results are not as important to me. As I become more comfortable with why the questions were being asked and how the results were obtained, I suspect I will be more interested in the results themselves.
  7. Methods - This is one of the most difficult parts of the paper to read. It contains a lot of chemical dosages, parameters, techniques. Here is probably where the learning curve is the steepest, and your information learned/minutes reading will be the least.

Anyhow, these are my current opinions regarding reading scientific journal articles. It is a satisfying feeling to make it through a paper and feel like you understood the majority of it. What things have you learned from your experiences reading papers?

Posted November 25th, 2010 in Career, Neuroscience, Science.

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