Have you struggled through a scientific article? Try starting here.
Remember high school science? While some readers smile back on those days with fond memories, most of us cringe. Let’s take a guess as to how your science class began: safety discussions, learning that confounding metric nonsense, and then the scientific method. And cue the PTSD flashbacks. Oh the scientific method – that inane step-by-step procedure of making a hypothesis, gathering your materials, writing a procedure, running the experiment and obtaining the necessary data, and finally writing your conclusion. Is this ringing any bells now? (If not, your skills of memory repression are indeed commendable.)
Well, that horrid scientific method experience is indeed how scientific papers are written. First off, science articles are not meant to be read as a story. There is not a plot, no main characters, no villains, no romance, no violence (unless there are explosions or infections), basically nothing “fun” in the normal sense of the word. Science articles are meant to inform. They are long recipes, with the science journal being nothing more than a large cookbook of sorts. Your hypothesis – an educated guess of what the results should be that is able to be tested during the course of the experiment – is what you want your recipe to be. The materials are your ingredients and cooking tools. The procedure is the step-by-step explanation of how to go about your recipe. The key with the procedure is that every person that attempts the same procedure should be able to duplicate your recipe with no variations. The data would be the recipe itself, and the conclusion would be the review as to how the recipe turned out and some ideas on how to improve or change the recipe next time.
So here is one opinion of how to actually look at a scientific article. Most of them start with an abstract, a short description of what is found in the context of the main article. The abstract is kind of like what you would find on the back cover of a novel or inside the front flap. This short summary should preview what you will find in the resulting discussion with a brief highlight of important results. Start there – if the abstract doesn’t pertain to your interest or your research, you don’t need to read the article. You wouldn’t read a book if the summary inside the front flap had nothing to do with your interests.
If the abstract passes your approval, move on to the introduction. In the introduction, the authors will generally lay out their research and what they hope to accomplish in their testing. They will also introduce their hypothesis, so you will have an idea of where they are going in this experiment.
Skip the procedure and materials section. If something in the conclusion doesn’t seem to jive or you intend on trying the experiment yourself, come back and read it. In all my years of reading scientific articles, it has not ever been detrimental for me to skip this section. In fact, it has spared me a lot of confusion and headaches. Unless technical jargon, metric measurements, and precise instructions are your thing, just do yourself a favor and move on to the results.
Read the results and conclusion. This is where the authors will lay out their data, what that data means, and how it pertains to their initial goals. There will still be a lot of technical jargon, but as long as you understand the big idea of what the authors were going for, you are on the right page.
At the end of the day, if you can understand what the intent of the experiment was, the results that were obtained from the testing, and the general conclusions that were made, you’ve succeeded. It’s all due to that wonderful scientific method you have spent all this time trying to forget!