Tip Sheets

How to read a scientific paper

By Tara Haelle

Of all the skills needed for reporting on medical research, it’s hard to think of one that’s more important than being able to read and understand a single medical study. Fortunately, there is not a single “right way” to read a paper. But there many different ways to make sense of a paper that can help each journalist dvelop their own best practices. 

An excellent tip sheet How to Read a Scientific Paper, from Alexandra Witze at The Open Notebook blog, provides an overview of the different sections of a medical study and how to develop a strategy for reading and making sense of those sections. 

Witze discusses the parts of a study, starting with the authors’ list — which may contain hints to collaborations or biases that are useful in reporting on a controversial topic. Then comes the abstract, which may not always match the information in the study. (Note: Never rely on the numbers in an abstract. They are sometimes written by someone not involved in the details of writing the paper, and sometimes an abstract is not updated to reflect the most recent data when a paper is revised.)

Witze also covers the body of the paper, including the methods, results, discussion and figures, as well as the references (great for finding outside sources), acknowledgments and supplementary information. 

Very few journalists (and probably scientists) read a paper from start to finish as they would a book, and everyone develops their own favorite habits for skimming or reading them in depth. Sometimes those habits vary according to where the paper is published as well, since different formatting exists across different journals. 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.