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How to Read a Scientific Paper: Structure of an Article

Strategies and approaches to reading a scientific journal article.

STOP: Reading a scientific article is not like reading a book, trying to plow right through is often overwhelming. Some of the research might be new to you or beyond your level of expertise. However, reading scientific articles is good practice to learn how to identify the important points and conclusions made by the authors and critically evaluate those ideas as well.

INSTEAD: Articles are meant to be skimmed and perused first. For example: look at the abstract, see if it interests you, jump to the discussion and conclusions, what did the authors learn? Do you want to know more then pop back to the methods and see how they did it or look at the results and see if the discussion accurately captures the findings. 



The Abstract of an article is a short summary of the article's contents. Often it includes the focus, results, and conclusions of the study. Since the abstract does not contain all the information found in the article, it's best to view it as a tool for deciding if you should investigate the article further. An article's abstract will always be freely available to view. 

Questions to ask while reading the abstract:

  • Does this interest me?
  • Is this related to my area of research?

Introduction and Literature Review

The Introduction of an article explains the idea being investigated, and gives background information if necessary. The introduction should also indicate why the study done in this particular article is unique, or how it adds to the overall discussion. The latter part of the introduction will also contain a literature review, this is a brief summary of related research that occurred before this article was written and that this article seeks to expand on.

Questions to ask while reading the introduction:

  • What is the author's goal in writing this article?
  • What area is the article building on?
  • How is this research unique?
  • Will this article tell me anything new?

Materials and Methods

The Materials and Methods of an article tells you how the study was performed. It should include the specific steps of the experiment or study, so as to be repeatable. 

Questions to ask while reading materials and methods

  • Is all the information present in order to repeat the experiment or study carried out?
  • Are the steps the authors took clearly explained?


The Results of an article should give an unbiased account of what the study's findings were, with data included. 

Sometimes the Results and Discussion section (described next) are combined.

Questions to ask while reading the results:

  • Are the results presented in a factual and unbiased way?
  • Is data provided to complement the findings?
  • Is the data clear and understandable?


The Discussion of an article tells you what the researchers felt was significant about the results. This section contains an analysis of the data, and may point to facts and figures.

Questions to ask while reading the discussion: 

  • Is the argument made by the authors supported by the data present in the results?
  • After reading the discussion do you find that more data should have been provided in the results?
  • Are there weaknesses in their argument?


The Conclusion of an article gives you the final thoughts of the researchers. It may reiterate what they noted in the discussion, or may be combined with the discussion. It may provide limitations present in the study or give recommendations for further research. This is the chance for the authors to clearly and succinctly state the ultimate finding or purpose of the article.

Questions to ask while reading the conclusion:

  • Is the conclusion valid?
  • Based on what you have read, what other research should be explored next?


The References of an article lists the works used in the research and writing of the article. Any articles mentioned in the introduction should be present here, as should any studies that were modeled in the materials and methods.

Question to ask while reviewing the references:

  • What other articles should I read?
  • What other authors are respected in this field?
  • What journals are frequently cited in this area?

Suggested Further Reading

Dean, R. (2013). How to read a paper and appraise the evidence. In Practice, 35(5), 282-285.

Pain, Elisabeth. “How to (Seriously) Read a Scientific Paper.” Science, 21 Mar. 2016.

Ruben, Adam. “How to Read a Scientific Paper.” Science, 20 Jan. 2016.