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How to read a
scientific paper
By Adam Ruben

Jan. 20, 2016

Our columnist
describes how he
learned to readand
actually understand
journal articles

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BY ROGER S. DAY

JAN. 7, 2016

The M.D.-Ph.D. double agent

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How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

journal articles

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

BY JESSICA W. TSAI

DEC. 10, 2015

Science made me a better


parent
Nothing makes you feel stupid
quite like reading a scientific
journal article.
I remember my first experience
with these ultracongested and
aggressively bland manuscripts so
dense that scientists are
sometimes caught eating them to
stay regular. I was in college,
taking a seminar course in which
we had to read and discuss a new
paper each week. And something

BY IGNACIO AMIGO

DEC. 3, 2015

A scientist goes to
kindergarten
BY ADAM RUBEN

NOV. 18, 2015

Tweets by @ScienceCareers

just wasnt working for me.


Every week I would sit with the
article, read every single
sentence, and then discover that I
hadnt learned a single thing. Id
attend class armed with exactly
one piece of knowledge: I knew I
had read the paper. The instructor
would ask a question; Id have no
idea what she was asking. Shed
ask a simpler question; still no
idea. But Id read the damn paper!
It reminded me of kindergarten,
when I would feel proud after
reading a book above my grade
level. But if you had asked me a
simple question about the books
contentsWhat kind of animal is
Wilbur? How did Encyclopedia
Brown know that Bugs Meany
wasnt really birdwatching?I
couldnt have answered it.
A few weeks into the seminar, I
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Page 2 of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

A few weeks into the seminar, I


decided enough was enough. I
wasnt going to read another
paper without understanding it.
So I took that weeks journal
article to the library. Not just the
regular library, but the obscure
little biology library, one of those
dusty academic hidey-holes only
populated by the most wretched
forms of life, which are, of course,
insects and postdocs.
I placed the paper on a large
empty desk. I eliminated all other
distractions. To avoid interruptions
from friends encouraging alcohol
consumption, as friends do in
college, I sat in an obscure
anteroom with no foot trac. To
avoid interruptions from cellphone
calls, I made sure it was 1999.
Most importantly, if I didnt
understand a word in a sentence,
I forbade myself from proceeding
to the next sentence until I looked
it up in a textbook and then reread
the sentence until it made sense.
I specifically remember this
happening with the word
exogenous. Somehow I had
always glossed over this word, as
though it was probably
unimportant to its sentence.
Wrong.
It took me more than 2 hours to
read a three-page paper. But this
time, I actually understood it.
And I thought, Wow. I get it. I
really get it.
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Page 3 of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

really get it.


And I thought, Oh crap. Im going
to have to do this again, arent I?

Every week I
would sit with
the article, read
every single
sentence, and
then discover
that I hadnt
learned a
single thing.

If youre at the beginning of your


career in science, you may be
struggling with the same problem.
It may help you to familiarize
yourself with the 10 Stages of
Reading a Scientific Paper:
1. Optimism. This cant be too
dicult, you tell yourself with a
smilein the same way you tell
yourself, Its not damaging to
drink eight cups of coee a day
or There are plenty of tenuretrack jobs. After all, youve been
reading words for decades. And
thats all a scientific paper is,
right? Words?
2. Fear. This is the stage when
you realize, Uh I dont think all
of these are words. So you slow
down a little. Sound out the
syllables, parse the jargon, look
up the acronyms, and review your
work several times.
Congratulations: You have now
read the title.
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Page 4 of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

read the title.


3. Regret. You begin to realize
that you should have budgeted
much more time for this whole
undertaking. Why, oh why, did you
think you could read the article in
a single bus ride? If only you had
more time. If only you had one of
those buzzer buttons from
workplaces in the 1960s, and you
could just press it and say,
Phoebe, cancel my January. If
only there was a compact version
of the same article, something on
the order of 250 or fewer words,
printed in bold at the beginning of
the paper
4. Corner-cutting. Why, whats
this? An abstract, all for me?
Blessed be the editors of scientific
journals who knew that no article
is comprehensible, so they asked
their writers to provide, la
Spaceballs, the short, short
version. Okay. Lets do this.
5. Baement. What the hell? Was
that abstract supposed to explain
something? Why was the average
sentence 40 words long? Why
were there so many acronyms?
Why did the authors use the word
characterize five times?
6. Distraction. What if there was,
like, a smartphone for ducks?
How would that work? What
would they use it for? And what
was that Paul Simon lyric, the one
from You Can Call Me Al, thats
been in your head all day? How
would your life change if you
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Page 5 of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

would your life change if you


owned a bread maker? Youd
have to buy yeast. Is yeast
expensive? You could make your
own bread every few days, but
then it might go stale. Its not the
same as store-bought bread; its
just not. Oh, right! Dont want to
end up a cartoon in a cartoon
graveyard. Is Paul Simon still
alive? You should check
Wikipedia. Sometimes you
confuse him with Paul McCartney
or Paul Shaer. Shame about
David Bowie. Can you put coee
in a humidifier?
7. Realization that 15 minutes
have gone by and you havent
progressed to the next
sentence.
8. Determination. All righty.
Really gonna read this time. Really
gonna do it. Yup, yuppers, yup-aroo, readin words is what you do.
Lets just point those pupils at the
dried ink on the page, and
9. Rage. HOW COULD ANY
HUMAN BRAIN PRODUCE SUCH
SENTENCES?
10. Genuine contemplation of a
career in the humanities.
Academic papers written on
nonscientific subjects are easy to
understand, right? Right?
What a strange document a
scientific journal article is. We
work on them for months or even
years. We write them in a highly
specialized vernacular that even
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Page 6 of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

specialized vernacular that even


most other scientists dont share.
We place them behind a paywall
and charge something ridiculous,
like $34.95, for the privilege of
reading them. We so readily
accept their inaccessibility that we
have to start journal clubs in the
hopes that our friends might
understand them and summarize
them for us.
Can you imagine if mainstream
magazine articles were like
science papers? Picture a Time
cover story with 48 authors. Or a
piece in The Economist that
required, after every object
described, a parenthetical listing
of the company that produced the
object and the city where that
company is based. Or a People
editorial about Jimmy Kimmel that
could only be published following
a rigorous review process by
experts in the field of Jimmy
Kimmel.
Do you know what youd call a
magazine article that required
intellectual scrutiny and
uninterrupted neural commitment
to figure out what its even trying
to say? Youd call it a badly
written article.
So for those new to reading
journals, welcome. Good luck.
And were sorry. Were trying to
write articles comprehensibly, but
sometimes our subdiscipline is so
hyperspecific that we need a
million acronyms. And sometimes
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Page 7 of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

million acronyms. And sometimes


were attempting to sound like
good scientists by copying the
tone of every article weve read.
And sometimes were just writing
badly.
Quackberry. Thats what youd call
the smartphone for ducks.
Posted in: Experimental Error, Early Career,
Graduate, Late Career, Midcareer,
Postdoc, Undergraduate, Academic,
Government, Other, Industry, Biomedical,
Engineering, Life Sciences, Physical
Sciences, Social Sciences, Africa,
Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe, United
States
DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a1600012

Adam Ruben
Adam Ruben, Ph.D., is a practicing
scientist and the author of Surviving
Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go
to Grad School.

Twitter

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1/22/16, 2:09 PM

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graddirector

a day ago

I can sympathize somewhat


remembering some of my
struggles in grad school.
That said, reading technical
information is a skill, and
once you master it, reading
scientific papers is really
not hard at all as they have
a standard format. Most are
even pretty well written I
think and the best tell very
compelling stories. I think
the biggest problem that
new scientists have is a
lack of background
knowledge to put things
into context and often a
limited vocabulary (like the
see more

5
hvsk

Reply Share

a day ago

Uhhhhh--Where is the
"How To" part of this
article? Or is the title just a
click-teaser? BTW,
standard English syntax
and punctuation counts.
3

Reply Share

Dylan Bargteil
> hvsk
a day ago

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Page 9 of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

a day ago

Agreed this was


just a distraction
from reading a
journal article.
5

Reply

Share

Ratul Minhaz
> hvsk
2 hours ago

Just another clickbait blog post.


Didn't expect this
from people in the
field of science
though.

Reply

Share

Clint Springer

3 hours ago

While I found this article


entertaining, the "How To"
was nonexistent. I was
hoping to share it with my
students but I think this
would just discourage
them.
1

Reply Share

Samantha Atkins

11 hours ago

YAY, it isn't just me. Being a


real glutton for punishment
I would grab a thesis or two
that took the author years
to whip into that form and
expect to read and grok it
straight out like a science
fiction novel. Ah, the
arrogance and optimism of
youth.
1

Reply Share

A cena col Cenobita

3 hours ago

"Exogenous" is a rather
common word, it's not a
"jargon" at all.
The problem isn't science,
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Page 10 of 12

How to read a scientific paper | Science | AAAS

1/22/16, 2:09 PM

The problem isn't science,


it's what you've studied in
high school and what were
your common readings at
the time.

Reply Share

love_as_laughter

3 hours ago

my way: just read the


abstract and have a look at
the figures and try to
understand the article by
yourself. if you cannot, go
through the text to find the
answer to what you have
not understood.

Reply Share

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