How to “seriously” read an academic paper

There are several guides around it. I found this one as the most appealing:

The digest of ideas follows:

  • Adam Ruben’s tongue-in-cheek column about the common difficulties and frustrations of reading a scientific paper broadly resonated among Science Careers readers.
  • Although it is clear that reading scientific papers becomes easier with experience, the stumbling blocks are real, and it is up to each scientist to identify and apply the techniques that work best for them.
  • How do you approach reading a paper?
  • I start by reading the abstract.
  • Then, I skim the introduction and flip through the article to look at the figures.
  • I try to identify the most prominent one or two figures, and I really make sure I understand what’s going on in them.
  • Then, I read the conclusion/summary.
  • I first get a general idea by reading the abstract and conclusions.
  • The conclusions help me understand if the goal summarized in the abstract has been reached, and if the described work can be of interest for my own study.
  • I also always look at plots/figures, as they help me get a first impression of a paper.
  • Then I usually read the entire article from beginning to end, going through the sections in the order they appear so that I can follow the flow of work that the authors want to communicate.
  • If you want to make it a productive exercise, you need to have a clear idea of which kind of information you need to get in the first place, and then focus on that aspect.
  • Citation lists can help you decide why the paper may be most relevant to you by giving you a first impression of how colleagues that do similar research as you do may have used the paper.
  • If I’m aiming to just get the main points, I’ll read the abstract, hop to the figures, and scan the discussion for important points.
  • I think the figures are the most important part of the paper, because the abstract and body of the paper can be manipulated and shaped to tell a compelling story.
  • If I want to delve deeper into the paper, I typically read it in its entirety and then also read a few of the previous papers from that group or other articles on the same topic.
  • Then, if the authors’ research is similar to my own, I see if their relevant data match our findings or if there are any inconsistencies.
  • Sometimes, it is also important to pay attention to why the authors decided to conduct an experiment in a certain way.
  • Borniger, doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Ohio State University, Columbus
  • That tells me whether or not it’s an article I’m interested in and whether I’ll actually be able to understand it—both scientifically and linguistically.
  • I then read the introduction so that I can understand the question being framed, and jump right to the figures and tables so I can get a feel for the data.
  • I then read the discussion to get an idea of how the paper fits into the general body of knowledge.
  • As I go deeper into the argument framing, figures, and discussion, I also think about which pieces are exciting and new, which ones are biologically or logically relevant, and which ones are most supported by the literature.
  •  Kevin Boehnke, doctoral candidate in environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • My reading strategy depends on the paper.
  • If it is directly applicable to my current topic, I’ll read the paper closely, apart from the introduction that is probably already familiar.
  • But I always try to figure out if there are particular places or figures that I need to pay close attention to, and then I go and read the related information in the results and discussion.
  • I often find that the supplementary figures actually offer the most curious and interesting results, especially if the results relate to parts of the field that the authors did not reference or if they are unclear or unhelpful to their interpretation of the overall story.
  • When reading papers, it helps me to have a writing task so that I am being an active reader instead of letting my eyes glaze over mountains of text only to forget everything I just read.
  • So for example, when I read for background information, I will save informative sentences from each article about a specific topic in a Word document.
  • Then, in the future, I’ll only need to read this document instead of re-reading all the individual papers.
  • Likewise, when I want to figure out how to conduct a particular experiment, I create a handy table in Excel summarizing how a variety of research teams went about doing a particular experiment.