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How to Read a Scientific Paper

BIOC/MCB 568 -- Fall 2010

John W. Little and Roy Parker--University of Arizona

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Translation into Belorussian
 The main purpose of a scientific paper is to report new results, usually experimental, and to relate these results to previous knowledge in the field. Papers are one of the most important ways that we communicate with one another. In understanding how to read a paper, we need to start at the beginning with a few preliminaries. We then address the main questions that will enable you to understand and evaluate the paper.

1. How are papers organized?

2. How do I prepare to read a paper, particularly in an area not so familiar to me?

3. What difficulties can I expect?

4. How do I understand and evaluate the contents of the paper?

1. Organization of a paper

In most scientific journals, scientific papers follow a standard format. They are divided into several sections, and each section serves a specific purpose in the paper. We first describe the standard format, then some variations on that format. A paper begins with a short Summary or Abstract. Generally, it gives a brief background to the topic; describes concisely the major findings of the paper; and relates these findings to the field of study. As will be seen, this logical order is also that of the paper as a whole. The next section of the paper is the Introduction. In many journals this section is not given a title. As its name implies, this section presents the background knowledge necessary for the reader to understand why the findings of the paper are an advance on the knowledge in the field. Typically, the Introduction describes first the accepted state of knowledge in a specialized field; then it focuses more specifically on a particular aspect, usually describing a finding or set of findings that led directly to the work described in the paper. If the authors are testing a hypothesis, the source of that hypothesis is spelled out, findings are given with which it is consistent, and one or more predictions are given. In many papers, one or several major conclusions of the paper are presented at the end of this section, so that the reader knows the major answers to the questions just posed. Papers more descriptive or comparative in nature may begin with an introduction to an area which interests the authors, or the need for a broader database. The next section of most papers is the Materials and Methods. In some journals this section is the last one. Its purpose is to describe the materials used in the experiments and the methods by which the experiments were carried out. In principle, this description should be detailed enough to allow other researchers to replicate the work. In practice, these descriptions are often highly compressed, and they often refer back to previous papers by the authors. The third section is usually Results. This section describes the experiments and the reasons they were done. Generally, the logic of the Results section follows directly from that of the Introduction. That is, the Introduction poses the questions addressed in the early part of Results. Beyond this point, the organization of Results differs from one paper to another. In some papers, the results are presented without extensive discussion, which is reserved for the following section. This is appropriate when the data in the early parts do not need to be interpreted extensively to understand why the later experiments were done. In other papers, results are given, and then they are interpreted, perhaps taken together with other findings not in the paper, so as to give the logical basis for later experiments. The fourth section is the Discussion. This section serves several purposes. First, the data in the paper are interpreted; that is, they are analyzed to show what the authors believe the data show. Any limitations to the interpretations should be acknowledged, and fact should clearly be...
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