This post is a follow up to ‘Sniffing Out Scientific Papers’, in which I explained how to find scientific papers on the internet. This week I’ll be breaking down the process of reading and interpreting papers once you’ve found them. Once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll be able to educate yourself, for free, using the most up-to-date evidence, rather than having to rely on second hand information.
Let’s get started!
What type of paper is it?
There are many different types of papers in journals. Sometimes authors just write a short piece about their observations on a particular subject (known as a ‘comment’ piece or ‘letter to the editor’). Other articles aim to collect evidence related to a particular subject in the form of a literature review.
For now, I’m going to focus on papers that describe a single scientific study. This could either be based on an experiment (the authors have actively tested something) or be an observation-based study.
What are the different sections?
A scientific paper is almost always split into five key sections. These are the abstract, introduction, methods, results and discussion.
Like the blurb of a book, the abstract is a short summary of the contents of the paper. Try not to rely on the information in the abstract – important details are often missed because the author(s) wants you to read on, or wasn’t able to fit all of the important information in.
The introduction sets the scene for the paper. A good introduction puts the work into context, both in the real world (why the research is important) and in science (what research has been done in this area before). Authors will often make it very clear that there is something lacking in previous studies – in other words, they are identifying a ‘research niche’. At the end of this section, the aims of the study are usually outlined.
The methods section is often skipped by readers – it doesn’t often make for very juicy reading! However, it is arguably the most important section. I always recommend readers start reading at this section, to understand exactly what the paper is about. Have the authors addressed the research aims? Are the methods likely to answer the research question? Are there any obvious holes in their approach?
The results section can be a little difficult to interpret. However, the sample is usually described here (the dogs/people that took part in the study) which can be useful. You might also find tables and graphs in this section that help you to understand what the authors have said. To help you interpret the results, and some other words you might come across, keep a science glossary to hand (more details at the end of this post).
The discussion. As a new reader of scientific papers, the discussion is your friend. The authors use this section to review and interpret the important results of their paper, and discuss their findings in relation to previous research in their area of study. Although it can be tempting to skip straight to this section as a new reader, I do recommend that you take the time to look over the other sections too.
Is it any good?
Even though you’ve just read a peer-reviewed paper, it’s always a good idea to critique the work you’ve read for yourself. To help you do this, I would recommend this online tool from the University of Glasgow. Although this tool was originally designed for reviewing health papers, I’ve found it really useful to review dog science too (just substitute the word ‘person’ for ‘dog’!).
If you found this post useful keep your eye out for next week’s post – a handy glossary for all of the jargon you’ll come across when reading scientific papers. If you want to be notified by email whenever there’s a new Dogs and Society post, just click the ‘follow’ button below.