There are whole books written about reading papers so this is just a recap of the basic things to look out for and a mention of some of the resources available to help if you feel you need to learn more about this skill. Even if you have been reading papers quite happily for years, it does no harm to go back to basics and remind yourself what we should be looking for when reading a scientific paper.
Reading a paper, critical appraisal, critical reading…or whatever you want to call it means you need to approach the paper/journal article with a questioning, open mind.
Iain K Crombie suggests in The Pocket Guide to Critical Appraisal that the basic questions to remember throughout your analysis of a paper are:
- Is it of interest? – look at the title and abstract. Abstract should also give first indication of how well the study was done.
- Why was it done? – look at the introduction. The introduction should end with a clear statement of the purpose of the study.
- How was it done? – look at the Methods. The methods section gives the details of how the study was carried out.
- What has it found? – look at the Results. The main findings of the study are presented in tables and figures which are explained by the text in the results section. Look for the flaws and inconsistencies in the study, minor problems can be ignored but sometimes undermine the main findings!
- What are the implications? – look at the Abstract/discussion – the value of research usually lies in the extent to which the findings can be generalised to other times and other locations. Wider implications of a study should be reviewed in the discussion, and they are often summarised in the abstract.
- What else is of interest? – look at the introduction/ discussion – useful references may be cited in the introduction and discussion. Then even if the study results are to be discounted, there may still be benefit to reading a paper. Critical Appraisal is not just about finding flaws, also identifies information of value.
If you have 20 minutes to spare this lecture from Professor Mark Pallen (based at University of Warwick) covers fairly concisely the approach to take when reading a scientific paper:- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sX8O8KzUJsk
If you are looking for items to help you make more sense of this skill you may want to take a look at the resources listed below, just some items held in the library which cover reading a paper.
- Scientific writing [electronic resource]: a reader and writer’s guide / by Jean-Luc Lebrun.
- Critical reading: making sense of research papers in life sciences and medicine / Ben Yudkin.
- Studying a study & testing a test: reading evidence-based health research / Richard Riegelman.
- How to read a paper: the basics of evidence-based medicine / Trisha Greenhalgh.
- Getting critical / Kate Williams.
- The postgraduate research handbook: succeed with your MA, MPhil, EdD and PhD / Gina Wisker.
If you feel you need further advice on resources to help with reading a paper, try searching for study skills books on the library catalogue, or search on your subject bibliographic databases (authors do write & publish papers about reading papers!), or talk to your Subject Team in the Library, contact details for Subject Teams can be found on the ISS website.
Crombie, I.K. (1996). The pocket guide to critical appraisal. London: BMJ Publishing.
Pallen, M. (2012, March 9) How to read a scientific paper [Video file.] Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sX8O8KzUJsk