Tip sheet offers guidance on reading and making sense of scientific studies

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: iT@c via Flickr

Of all the skills needed for reporting on medical research, it’s hard to think of one more important than being able to read and understand a single medical study. That may sound obvious, but a surprising number of journalists find their way to covering research findings before they have learned how to read the research papers themselves. (I once was one of them!)

I usually give a talk reviewing the basics of this task at the AHCJ conference each year, but this year’s conference unfortunately was among the large meeting casualties of the pandemic. Regardless, learning to read scientific studies is one of those skills where you get better at it the more you try to do it yourself and the more you hear from different people about how they do it.

There is not a single “right way” to read a paper. Perhaps you’ve heard my talk before or those of a few others and it’s still not quite clicking. It also helps to have another perspective on how to approach a study. That’s where an excellent tip sheet from Alexandra Witze comes in handy: How to Read a Scientific Paper.

There’s now an entry to this guide in the tip sheet section of  AHCJ’s Medical Studies Core Topic area. Witze’s how-to, published in The Open Notebook blog, first reviews the key sections of the paper and what a journalist needs to pay attention to in them. She starts with the authors list and abstract, both of which can be more important than new science reporters might realize.

The authors’ list may contain hints to collaborations or biases that are useful in reporting on a controversial topic, for example. Two things to look for in the abstract are:

  • Do any numbers differ from what’s reported in the study? Sometimes there are mistakes to follow up on with the authors.
  • Does the abstract faithfully reflects the paper’s key findings? Does it play up secondary outcomes when in fact the primary outcomes were negative or unremarkable?

Witze then discusses the body of the paper, including the methods, results, discussion and figures. She also points out a secret that many new reporters don’t realize: The references section — which she calls a “portal into a world of additional inscrutable PDFs” — can be a goldmine for figuring out who you might call for outside comment on a paper. (Pay attention to potential author overlap, though. It’s less than ideal if your outside commenter has coauthored many papers with the lead or senior author of the paper you’re covering).

After describing the acknowledgments and supplementary information — something you may specifically need to request separate from the study itself — Witze offers pointers on how to strategize a first-pass read. Very few journalists (and probably scientists) read a paper from start to finish as they would a book. Not only that, everyone develops their own favorite habits for skimming or reading them in greater depth. Sometimes those habits vary according to where the paper is published, since different formatting exists across different journals.

When I read a paper, I read the abstract first, often in this order: objective, conclusion, methods, results. That’s not the order they appear in, but it works for my brain. Then I’ll often skip straight to the discussion and read a few paragraphs before backing up to read the methods, then the introduction, then the results and then the discussion again.

That pattern won’t work for many others, but it does incorporate two other pieces of advice from Witze: Circle back to what you may have missed, and hunt for extra details. When you’re reading a paper, you’ll be reading it more than once, most likely, and reading it with different objectives on each pass. Over time, you’ll develop your own habits for making sense of scientific studies, but if you haven’t already cemented them, pick up a few tips from Witze.

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