Understanding and Analyzing Empirical Articles
- Understanding Scientific Papers
- Reading as a Process
- Step 1: Preview the Scientific Paper
- Step 2: Read for Understanding and Analysis
- Step 3: Reflect and Take Notes
The first step to reading more critically and efficiently is to understand the structure of the source you’re reading. Thankfully, scientific papers, a.k.a. articles, typically follow a standard format that you may already be familiar with from writing lab reports—both are based on the scientific method and typically contain the following four sections: The introduction is where the authors present their research question and explain their hypotheses and predictions. The methods section details how they conducted the study and analyzed the data, and the results section summarizes the key findings. Finally, scientific papers end with a discussion where the authors interpret the results, explain whether they support the hypothesis, and relate the study to the broader field of research. This common structure helps scientists better communicate their research with one another and the larger public—armed with an understanding of this structure, you’ll now be able to better understand and analyze scientific research.
You likely think of reading as a one-step event: you pick up a book or article and read it. Experts on reading, however, suggest that a multi-step process can make you a more efficient and critical reader.
Keep in mind that how you accomplish each of these steps will differ depending on what kind of source you are reading. The remainder of this guide details how to approach each step when reading scientific papers.
Before you begin to read a scientific paper, consider how it relates to the course, your experiment, or your research project. Next, preview the source itself to determine its main goal, method, and findings. Your first step should be to read the abstract, which provides a brief summary of the paper. As you read, ask
- WHAT did the authors want to find out?
- WHY did they want to know this?
- HOW did they answer the question?
- WHAT did they find out?
- SO WHAT? Why is this research important?
Keep in mind that reading the abstract alone will not provide you with an understanding of the source. You must read the article in full, section by section: the next portion of this guide will help you focus your reading to both understand what the author is trying to say and to analyze and evaluate the source.
Each section of a scientific paper is carefully organized to present information in an expected format—as you become familiar with this standard structure, you’ll be able to easily locate the specific information you seek. Use the following descriptions and guiding questions to navigate each section as you read. You may also want to use our Template for Taking Notes on Scientific Papers to organize your notes after you read each section.
A careful reading of the introduction is essential to understanding the reasons for and goals of a scientific study. In this section, authors provide an overview of the general topic, summarizing background information from the existing literature. The authors explain how their research adds to current knowledge and convey its importance. The introduction is also where you’ll find the research question(s) and expected answer(s)—in scientific papers, these answers come in the form of hypotheses and predictions (to learn more about these, check out our guide to Understanding Hypotheses and Predictions. Introductions often conclude with a brief summary of how the authors tested their hypotheses—a preview of the methods section.
Questions to Check Your Understanding
- What is the research question?
- Why should it be studied (what gap does this research fill)?
- How has it been studied before?
- What are the hypotheses and predictions?
Questions to Guide Your Analysis & Evaluation
- Is the question clear?
- How does the work compare to other studies in the field?
- Will this research contribute to our knowledge in an important way?
- Is the hypothesis justified?
In the methods section, the authors provide a detailed account of how they completed their study or experiment, the materials and/or participants they used, how they measured particular variables, and how they analyzed their data. As a reader, you will want to pay careful attention to this section and determine the strengths and weaknesses of the study’s design.
- How did the authors conduct the study or experiment?
- What materials and measures did they use?
- How did they sample the study area, subjects, or population?
- How did they analyze the collected data?
- Are the measures appropriate and clearly related to the research question? Do they adequately test the hypothesis?
- Does the sampling (e.g., study areas, subjects, participants) fairly represent the larger population of the study?
- Is the analysis appropriate for the data?
- Are there noticeable flaws in the method?
The results section summarizes the data in text, figures, and tables. As a careful reader, you should examine this section and consider not only what the authors found but also what findings they chose to present and how (for example, which results warranted display in a figure? which didn’t?).
- Are enough data displayed to demonstrate the results?
- How do the findings relate to the hypotheses?
- Are the statistics appropriately presented?
- Did you note patterns that the author does not mention?
In this section, the authors analyze their findings and explain whether their results support their hypotheses and predictions. The authors explain why (or why not) by comparing not only their results but also their approach to those of other related studies, providing essential context and grounding their work in the existing literature. They also discuss the limitations, importance, and implications of their results and detail possible applications, extensions, or revisions of their study.
- Did the data support the hypothesis?
- If not, does the author explain why?
- How do the results compare to those of other studies?
- Are the findings significant?
- What are the limitations and applications?
- Did the authors interpret the results appropriately?
- Are you persuaded by the findings?
- How significant are the limitations of the study?
- Do the authors offer plausible applications for their research?
- Does the discussion reflect the major points from the introduction?
Taking notes while you read is time consuming and can even distract you from focusing on the ideas you are reading. Instead, separate the acts of reading and notetaking by reading a section or a few pages and then stopping to take notes. Make sure that your notes provide answers to the questions posed in each of the sections above. Again, you may want to use our Template for Taking Notes on Scientific Papers to organize your notes as you go.
After you have read and taken notes on the paper, be sure to reflect on it. How does it compare to other papers you’ve read on this topic? How does it relate to your experiment or research project? How might you use it in your course work, lab report, or paper?