This post is a summary of the article “How to Read a Scientific Article” written by Purugganan and Hewitt. At the end, I present a simple template that I decided to use myself for taking notes when reading papers.
Reading a scientific article is not a simple task and you should not read it like a textbook. Below are presented practical steps that you should have in mind.
1. Skim the article and identify its structure.
Before you begin reading, the first thing you should do is identify the document’s structure. This way you are able to extract information faster and easier, and decide which parts will be first read. If the paper follows the conventional IMRD (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) structure, for each section described below you will find the mentioned features.
Abstract. Usually contains four points: (a) purpose of study (why it was done), (b) methodology (how it was done), (c) results, (d) conclusion (what it means). This is where you should start reading.
Introduction. Serves to create interest and provide enough information to the reader. This is usually done by leading the reader from broad information to the focal point or question of the paper, also describing related work and situating the proposed work.
Methods. Describes with technical language and detail what experiments were done.
Results and Discussion. The Results section states what was found, comparing the results. The Discussion section situates the work in the broader context of the field. It also states a clear answer to the question addressed by the paper and explains how the results support it.
2. Distinguish main points.
Articles contain a lot of information and you should be able to find the main points. Some indicators of where they are located can be useful: title, abstract, keywords, figures, the first and couple last sentences of the introduction and specific words or phrases like surprising, unexpected, in contrast to previous work, seldom been addressed, we propose, we introduce, we develop, etc.
3. Generate questions and be aware of your understanding.
Before reading, you should question the credibility of the authors, work, journal, how your current knowledge can impact on your understanding of the paper, if you are reading the important parts and if there is someone with whom you can discuss confusing parts. After reading, question what is the problem addressed and its importance, the method used, what are the findings and their quality, how it relates to other work, what are the specific applications and future experiments.
4. Draw inferences.
Experiments have demonstrated that readers who draw inferences understand and recall information better. Each part of information contained in an article can be related to what you already know or to some other part of the article. By linking the dots you learn more.
5. Take notes as you read.
Notes improve recall and comprehension. It is useful to develop a template which you’ll use when reading an article. Time spent filling it out will pay off in the future. Important fields that your template should have are: citation, keywords, subject, hypothesis, methodology, results, summary of key points, context, significance and cited references, among others.
My notetaking template
# General subject
# Specific subject
# Summary of key points
# Context (how this article relates to other work in the field)
# Significance (to the field and to your own work)
# Important cited references
# Other comments