How to read a scientific article

Early in many APPE rotations, pharmacy students are assigned a journal article to read, digest, then present to a group in the form of a journal club. The tenents of this exercise are to engrain the methodological technique for critically appraising a scientific manuscript. While the exercise can be exhaustive, it does not always accomplish its intended mission. While yes, students will learn how to properly critically appraise an article, they too will learn that they never want to do that again. Many never do.

There is another method by which you can read the literature in an efficient manner. In fact, this is something each of us should’ve been taught in school – primary school in fact – but never were. I’m not referring to how to read per se, but how to read a book, a paper, a news article. Fortunately, there is such instruction available that has been used for decades. That book is “How To Read A Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. I highly recommend this book to everyone. Not only will it improve your reading economy, but it will also help you regain an enthusiasm to read not only scientific literature but the literature in general.

Although not specifically about how to read a scientific paper, “How To Read A Book” can teach us principles that hold true across any form of written media. So let’s examine the four key aspects of reading that you should be aware of to start improving your reading economy. Those four elements are:

  1. Elementary reading (Beginning, middle, end)
  2. Inspectional reading (skimming systematically – get the most out of an article within a given relatively short time yet too short of a time to get everything that could be gotten)
  3. Analytical reading (Organized, thorough, complete – the best reading you can do)
  4. Syntopical reading (Comparative reading – reading many papers/books at once and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve).

Most people oscillate between elementary reading and analytical reading. Rarely, if ever, is inspectional reading, or syntopical reading employed. It makes sense since we are instructed to read in this manner in school. However, it’s not always the most effective manner of reading. Particularly if you have a large amount of material to consume in a short period of time.

The process to begin learning how to read should begin with an immediate evolution from elementary reading. Most people should start with learning inspectional reading. This method of reading can be thought of as a systematic skimming or pre-reading. The objective of this reading method is not to blow through the manuscript as quickly as possible, but rather strategically identifying key elements of the manuscript to determine if it holds information that is valuable, timely, and accurate to you. It can also tell you if this manuscript is worth reading at all.

The method of accomplishing this systematic skimming takes advantage of the uniform manuscript structure for almost every scientific paper. A sequence for reading the manuscript should be as follows:

  1. Read the title. While entirely obvious, you should read the title with a specific objective in mind; to get a good idea of the subject and to place it in the appropriate category in your knowledge base thus far.
  2. Read the last paragraph in the introduction. Most readers already skip the abstract altogether, I tend to agree that it provides little benefit, and may confuse key elements of the manuscript itself. Best be avoided entirely for this method of reading. Instead, save yourself from the unnecessary background filler of the introduction by reading exclusively the final paragraph in this section. The reason for doing so is that in almost every manuscript, this is where the hypothesis or research question is stated. Reading this statement immediately after reading the title can clue you into whether the two are in agreement, or (which occurs more often than you’d think) the title and hypothesis are different.
  3. Read the results. When reading the results section, you should be considering whether or not the results are adequate to answer the research question and if they are consistent with the hypothesis.
  4. Read Figure 1, and Table 1, 2, 3, etc. These figures and tables should be skimmed to ensure that all patients included were accounted for and that the results described in the manuscript are consistent with results in tables.
  5. Finally, read the author’s conclusion. Do the results presented to answer the research question and do you agree with the authors’ conclusion.

This format of systematic skimming replaces reading the abstract in one simple important way. You are choosing the important information to highlight, not the authors. From here, additional questions may be formed and further reading of the manuscript necessary. However, there are many cases in which the methods or results of the paper are deemed not relevant to your practice and you can continue investing time into other, more relevant issues. But you’ve at least pre-read and analytically skimmed the paper.

Followed by analytical reading and ultimately syntopical reading where necessary. The simple matter of truth is that not every reading necessarily demands each type of reading employed – you have to learn what to use when. This skill can be developed alongside learning these aspects. While these skills can be learned alongside systematic skimming, they’re the best learned one at a time.

Key points of How to read a scientific article

  1. Read the title
  2. Read the last paragraph in the introduction
  3. Read the results
  4. Read Figure 1, and Table 1, 2, 3, etc
  5. Finally, read the author’s conclusion


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