Reading a scientific paper is always a challenge for a reader. Young scientists often have to skim through many articles and face difficulty in identifying a suitable research paper. Journal editors and reviewers have to go through numerous manuscripts to identify relevant research papers. While writing a scientific paper has its own rules and forms, active reading, or reading with an intent to understand, is both a learned skill and a level of effort.
Tips for reading a scientific paper.
The 3 pass approach: According to “How to Read a Paper” by Srinivasan Keshav, a 3 pass approach acts as a filtering mechanism and is the best way to read a scientific paper. The first pass is to get a ‘bird’s eye view’ that skims through the paper’s structure ignoring details like data work. One should read the abstract, title, introduction, and conclusions to get a sense of what the paper tries to convey. This step serves as a first check if the paper is worth reading in general.
The second pass is reading the full research paper without going too much into the details of data work, methodology, and specifics. This helps to identify the structure of the paper, how the argument of hypotheses is build up and posit it in the general discourse on the topic on which the research paper has been written.
The third pass is when a reader critically gets involved with the methodology and data work. This is when one dives deep into the author’s scientific exercise and intellectually engages him/herself with the research.
Understand the author’s message: while going through the 3 pass approach, it is essential to identify the exact message that the author is trying to convey. One has to understand the approach of the author; whether the author is trying to present a review article; report primary findings; additional insights to an ongoing discussion or establishing a new idea or concept. The idea is to identify the big question that the paper tries to respond to and in what capacity.
The 6 key questions: a manuscript is always to be objectively assessed based on 6 key questions: (1)Motivation: What does the author(s) want to know? (2) Approach/Methodology: What exercise did they undertake and how robust is the exercise? (3) Context: Why was the exercise done in a certain way and how relevant is it in the field of study? (4) Data work: What do the results actually show? (5)Interpretation: How did the author(s) interpret the results and how objective they are in drawing their conclusions)? (6) Future Scope of work: Does the paper provide food for thought for what should or can be done next?
While the above-mentioned approach helps decipher a scientific paper, one must remember every author works under certain limitations and any shortcomings in a paper are only a part of their learning curve.