Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

How to Read a Scientific Paper: Structure of an Article

Abstract

The Abstract portion of an article is a short summary of the article as a whole. It should include the focus and results of the study as well as ultimate conclusions drawn. It does not explain in full any of the above, so it is important to use the abstract as a tool to decide if you should investigate further.

The Abstract is always available even when an organization does not have a subscription to a journal. 

The Abstract is the best thing to read FIRST.

Question to ask:

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

Introduction

The Introduction of a paper explains the idea investigated. It should include what many refer to as a "Literature Review", which is a summary of research already performed by others about the same topic. Here it should indicate why THIS particular study is unique or how it adds to the discussion.

The literature review may have it's own section in the paper, if so, it will directly follow the Introduction. 

If the Abstract is unclear, you may wish to read the Introduction second, if the Abstract is clear, the Introduction may wait until you read more of the paper.

Questions to ask:

  • What have other people done in regards to this topic?
  • How is this research unique?
  • Will this tell me anything new?

Materials and Methods

The Materials and Methods section of a paper tells you how the study was performed. It should include the specifics of the experiment or study, so if you wanted to repeat it, you could. It is important to note that not all studies include enough information to be repeated, and that is considered a poor Materials and Methods section.

Some people suggest reading Materials & Methods second, so you can see if all of the information is there to repeat. However, sometimes the M&M section may be too technical for some readers. You may also jump to the Discussion second, or the Introduction, if you still are not sure what the article is trying to convey.


Questions to ask:

  • Could I repeat their work?
  • Is all the information present in order to repeat it?

Results

The Results section of a research paper should tell you, in unbiased terms, what the findings were. The data should be included here.

Rarely the Results and Discussion sections will be combined. 

Some suggest reading the Results section before the Discussion to review the data without opinions of the researchers clouding your judgement. Some may wish to read the DIscussion first to see if the paper still holds interest for them.

Questions to ask:

  • Are the results presented in a factual and unbiased way?
  • Is all the data present?
  • What conclusions do you formulate from this data?

Discussion/Conclusion

The Discussions section of a research paper should tell you what the researchers felt was significant about the results. This is where they analyse the data. What did the data tell them? They may also point to facts and figures.

The Conclusion of a scientific paper tells you the final thoughts from the researchers. It may reiterate what they noted in the Discussion or it may even be combined with the Discussion. Many times the Conclusion recommends areas to be researched in the future. 

The Conclusion may generally be read last.

Questions to ask:

  • Does their analysis agree with the data present?
  • What are the weaknesses in their argument?
  • Is the conclusion valid?
  • Based on what you have read, what other research should be explored next?

References

The References section of the article gives credit to other scientists and researchers. It shows you what works the article you are reading referred to when planning their research and writing their paper. Any articles they mention in their Introduction or Literature Review should be present here. Any studies they modeled their Materials and Methods on should be included here. 

The References may be read at any time during the process. You may want to follow up a point made in the text, or you may want to look them over in the end to see what else you might read.

Questions to ask:

  • What other articles should I read?
  • What other authors are respected in this field?

Further Reading

Dean, R. (May 01, 2013). How to read a paper and appraise the evidence. In Practice, 35, 5, 282-285.

Durbin, C. G. J. (January 01, 2009). How to read a scientific research paper. Respiratory Care, 54, 10, 1366-71.

(n.d.). How to read a scientific paper. Retrieved from Science Buddies website: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/top_science-fair_how_to_read_a_scientific_paper.shtml.

Lang, T. A. (January 01, 2011). The illusion of certainty and the certainty of illusion: a caution when reading scientific articles. The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2, 2, 118-23.