Four steps to reading a scientific paper

In part 1 we discussed the first stage of analytical reading which outlined how to define what is the article about as a whole. The second stage of analytical reading builds upon this to deepen our understanding of the article we’re reading. By understanding the structure of this purpose. 

I do have to admit that this second stage can be rather time-consuming. The purpose of this technique is not to be able to read many articles and digest them all. But instead, it is to read fewer articles better. By gaining an understanding of how to read better, over time these techniques become habits, and habits become routine. 

The second stage of analytical reading – What is being said in detail, and how?

  1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting their keywords
    • How do they use key terms while describing their results? Are these positive, negative or neutral terms. By observing bias even within the results description can become useful when critiquing the interpretation of the results later on.
  2. Grasp the authors’ leading propositions by dealing with their most important sentences
    • The most important sentences are those where the author describes the primary results in the results section, then again in the discussion where they further frame those results. Are these statements in agreement with the structure, methods, and limitations of the study design?
  3. Know the authors’ arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, a sequence of sentences
    • In almost every manuscript, you will find the authors defending the results of their study in the discussion. While some may do so minimally, this should be a red flag and recognize their technique of distracting you by highlighting secondary fundings over their primary results. Fundamentally, the key arguments should be outlined in detail in the methods. Any new results, outcomes or hypothesis generated afterward should be regarded skeptically.
  4. Determine which problems the author has solved, and which they have not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew they had failed to solve.
    • This is done by relating the results, discussion and authors’ defense of the results back to the hypothesis and methods. Did they accomplish what was they orignially set out to do? Sometimes in the course of the research, the process can become overwhelming and the importance of the study may become confused or lost altogether.

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. We’ve already examined the four key aspects of reading in previous articles. But to remind ourselves of them those four elements are:

  1. Elementary reading (Beginning, middle, end)
  2. Inspectional reading (skimming systematically – get the most out of a manuscript 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)

Analytical reading is reading that is done at the highest level of focus and comprehension you can muster. But this method of reading is not for every single manuscript you pick up. Only after employing an inspectional reading technique on a set of articles, you’ll then be able to identify which ones require further reading and comprehension. 

There are three stages of analytical reading. The first stage of analytical reading is to determine what is the article as a whole. The second stage of analytical reading asks what is being said in detail, and how? Lastly, the third stage of analytical reading outlines the rules for criticizing an article as a communication of knowledge.

Practice this systematic approach to reading your next article of interest. After you’ve systematically skimmed through it to ensure its value to you to invest your time and effort, begin to read it in this organized, thorough, complete manner. Seek to digest the article in the best reading you can do.

To summarize, the key the second stage of analytical reading where we ask what is being said in detail, and how, consists of the following steps:

  1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting their keywords
  2. Grasp the authors’ leading propositions by dealing with their most important sentences
  3. Know the authors’ arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, a sequence of sentences
  4. Determine which problems the author has solved, and which they have not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew they had failed to solve.

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How to analyze any article