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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

How to Read a Scientific Paper: Structure of an Article

Strategies and approaches to reading a scientific journal article.
A scientific paper can be read in whatever order you personally prefer. The reading order suggestions below are meant to provide guidance for those who have not yet figured out their preferred order.

Abstract

The Abstract of an article is a short summary of the article's contents. Generally, 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. Regardless of a subscription, an article's abstract will always be available to view. 

Reading order: first.

Questions to ask while reading the abstract:

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

Introduction

The Introduction of an article explains the idea being investigated, and gives background information if necessary. Generally, it will include a "literature review," which is a summary of research others have already performed on the topic. The introduction should also indicate why the study done in this particular article is unique, or how it adds to the overall discussion.

Reading order: second if the abstract is unclear; later if not.

Questions to ask while reading the introduction:

  • What have other people done in regards to this topic?
  • 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. Generally, it should include the specifics of the experiment, so as to be repeatable. 

Reading order: later.

Questions to ask while reading

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

Results

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

Reading order: before reading the discussion if you wish to review the data without the opinions of the researchers; after reading the discussion if you are still figuring out whether the article interests you.

Questions to ask while reading:

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

Discussion/Conclusion

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.

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 also give recommendations for further research. 

Reading order: conclusion last; discussion before or after results.

Questions to ask while reading: 

  • Does the analysis agree with the data presented?
  • 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 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.

Reading order: at any time. 

Question to ask while reading:

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

Suggested Further Reading

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

Durbin, C. G. J. (2009). How to read a scientific research paper. Respiratory Care, 54(10), 1366-1371.

Lang, T. A. (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), 118-123.

Science Buddies. (n.d.). How to Read a Scientific Paper. Science Buddies. http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/top_science-fair_how_to_read_a_scientific_paper.shtml