#365papers – How to Read Technical Papers… Quickly

I’ve now been teaching science at the college level for over ten years, and actually practicing science for… longer.

One of the challenges that budding young scientists face, as well as those students that take science classes to meet graduation requirements for non-science majors, is that it’s a huge leap from science textbooks, blog posts, and Wikipedia to reading the original scientific literature.

The first time any student (including me) is handed a technical paper, the temptation is to start from the beginning and read the paper straight through to the end. It winds up taking an hour or more just to read the paper and potentially get very little out of it. If you’re doing research and reading this way, you may have a stack of 10 papers that might be relevant to your project. You can’t reasonably read them all fast enough.

And how on Earth can I find time to read a technical paper every single day for #365papers?

It’s easy: You don’t read technical papers like textbooks, blog posts, and Wikipedia.

I can determine if I want to read a paper in detail in less than 10 minutes, usually, and get most of what I need out of it in maybe 20 minutes. Thus, I can read a paper while I drink my morning coffee.

Here’s how it works. First, let’s talk about the components of a scientific paper, in particular papers about paleontology (since I’m a paleontologist).

Parts of a technical paper:

Abstract: This is the briefest, most concise summary possible. Though it is the first part of a technical paper, it is the last part written. In general, journals do not allow reference citations in abstracts.

Introduction: This section provides background information needed to understand the context and importance of the research presented. This is mostly from literature review and is often full of reference citations. This section is written primarily for those who are not already well-versed in the topic at hand. Sometimes, the objectives of the paper are presented at the end of this section, but not the conclusions.

Methods: The title is what it is. The only thing that belongs in a methods section is the methods (software, statistical analysis, instrumentation etc.) that were used in the project. There are no data presented and no conclusions discussed. This part is most relevant if the reader wishes to replicate the study or has questions about the validity of the results.

Results: Often combined with Discussion (below), this section only provides results. Often this is tables and charts. Maybe a graph. There is NO INTERPRETATION here. There should be no references cited unless the authors are combining data from other published papers.

Discussion: The discussion talks about the interpretation of the results (above) and how these interpretations fit in with the larger knowledge base. This can be combined with Results if it makes more sense to talk about interpretation while presenting the results. There are often lots of references to other papers. This is where the authors make the results relevant and talk about implications.

Conclusions: Here are summarized the overarching conclusions that the research provides. Sometimes there’s mention of further work to come. There’s a little bit of discussion, but NOTHING NEW that hasn’t already been mentioned in the Discussion. This is basically a summary.

Systematic Paleontology: Papers in paleontology have some special sections specific to our science. In particular, there is the section entitled ‘systematic paleontology’ in which all the important fossils are described and their identifications justified. There are often lots of references to previous work, sometimes going all the way back to Linnaeus’s original work.

Now that we know what the different sections of a technical paper are, we can pick and choose what parts we need to read to get from a paper what we want.

Reading technical papers:

Time is of the essence when it comes to doing research. There isn’t possibly enough time to read all those papers. So what do you do?

Step 1: Read the title and keywords (if available). Does it sound interesting or important? If not, skip the paper.

Step 2: Read the abstract. Does that sound interesting? Is the paper about what you think it’s about? What are the overarching conclusions of the research? A proper abstract actually provides the conclusions. Many readers never go any farther.

Step 3: Go to the conclusions section and read the conclusions. This should be in more detail than the abstract.

Step 4: If you’ve made it this far and are still looking at the paper, it might be time to dive in and actually read it. But maybe not. If it’s a topic you’re already well versed in, you might skip the introduction. You might also skip the methods, at least for now, if you’re just interested in knowing how they drew their conclusions.

For #365papers, I go through steps 1-3, and sometimes read the introduction and often get no further – unless the paper is relevant to my own research, then I read the rest very carefully.

The important thing to realize is this: Technical papers are prepared in such a way that they don’t have to be read from beginning to end. The way they are broken into sections makes it possible to read them in whatever order makes sense to you. You can skip sections and read them at a later date. You don’t have to read these papers like books.

And you can probably read at least one every day…

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