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How to read a research paper: general approaches

How to read a research paper: the scientific importance of research papers

Without a doubt, an ability to correctly read, analyze and understand diverse types of modern research papers is the most desired skill for each ambitious researcher. In truth, a great number of students consider that the importance of this problem is greatly exaggerated. After all, everyone is able to read. What is so special about research papers and scientific articles? Why should I spend my time examining guidelines about such a trifle? Doubtlessly, I know perfectly how to read a research paper! These are the most popular arguments of those students who think that this assignment is nothing special, comparing with writing and editing academic papers. However, many stalwarts of this point of view forget that an informative and scientifically significant research paper has an incomparable informative density per unit of text. Research papers are the main way in which scientists from different corners of the globe communicate with each other, compare results of their researches and evaluate their works. Their role is undoubtedly vital for a modern scientific community. Moreover, various methods of analysis, which are generally accepted and useful when working with other kinds of texts, such as reviews, essays, etc., are virtually useless when examining research papers and articles. These papers include the most up-to-date data about some specific scientific problem, indicate the similar problems in the related scientific disciplines and induce at least twice as many new questions about some phenomenon because there exist no limits to the scientific search. Therefore, each single word in the article may and must bear the univocal and essential meaning. When reading these papers ambiguous interpretation are unacceptable. Hence, this is the heart of the problem: in order to understand such academic texts one should use specific skills and techniques, use correct patterns and understand the inner principles of their structure. Otherwise, one’s work would be useless and ineffective. Therefore, how to read a research paper, extracting all author’s ideas and conceptions? To answer this question let us examine the main types of modern academic papers together with the commonly accepted structure according to which they are usually written.

Different types of modern research papers

Nowadays, there exist a great amount of various scientific and scientifically oriented papers and documents. However, in order to simplify the answer to the question: ‘how to read a research paper?’ it is possible to indicate two main types: primary research articles and standard review articles, which are divided in accordance with their main purposes and literary formats. The main goal of the review articles is to supply readers with a laconic and correct overview of some concrete scientific problem or theme by summarizing the data and conclusions from various previously published studies. In fact, these papers are informative abridgments of all important researchers and scientists’ views connected with the examined topic. Additionally, according to their structure, these articles are usually much more fulfilled with the background information than ordinary primary research articles, thus, they are widely used by researchers as multipurpose sources of information. Moreover, different review articles written by different authors supply an audience with a well-rounded perspective of all researches that have been performed during the time elapsed since the beginning of the work in this direction. Obviously, the general purpose of the primary research articles is completely different. These academic papers contain exceptionally original information about some phenomenon and/or ideas and conclusions of scientists who have performed the experiments. Thereby, whereas review articles include well-known and proven scientific data, primary research articles can include new theories and hypotheses that have to be accepted as correct by the other members of the scientific community. Thus, when trying to understand how to read a research paper that contains data about notional and/or problematic hypotheses, one has to consider that not all information in the article is proven and accepted. In this case, in order to clarify the examined topic one should perform extra researches and literary searches. Of course, primary research articles also contain all the data about all materials, methods and techniques used during the experiments, as well as information about all significant nuances and aspects of the used methods. However, some scientific journals, especially those that are available online, contain only brief descriptions. To find extra details one should examine the references that lead to websites with the ‘extra data’, which contains additional information about the performed experiments.

In order to quickly distinguish one type of papers from another one can use a few comprehensible advice. Firstly, in contradistinction to primary research articles, standard review articles do not contain a section that describes methods and materials. Secondly, a standard review article includes references and citations to original literary sources and articles published by other scientists who have already studied some aspects of the problem.


How to read a research paper: the main sections of the primary research papers

Of course, in order to understand all the meanings and ideas, which are comprised in a standard research paper, one should perfectly understand the general structure of the paper. Usually, according to the generally received format of research articles and academic papers, it is possible to divide their sections into six different segments, each of which represents the specific piece of material about the performed research. Naturally, this statement does not mean that all research papers are written according to the identical structure. For example, some scientific journals use diverse formats that differ in unimportant details, due to the specific demands of the target audience or limits of space. However, the most useful and ubiquitous structure of primary research papers contains the following segments:

  • Abstract. Its main purpose is to highlight the main problems and questions, which are discussed in the article and provide the audience with a concise overview of the researcher’s conclusions. In other words, it is a logically constructed and comprehensibly written summary of the research paper. It also should be mentioned that abstracts of academic papers, such as dissertations or reviews, are usually approachable through online websites or free databases.
  • Introduction. It is the most important segment of the text from the point of view of its future popularity among the readers. In order to eschew work with great amounts of material most readers consider that they will be able to understand is this article worth attention or not, by reading the first author’s conclusions, which are provided by the introduction. It describes and emphasizes the essential problems studied by the researchers and supply readers with background information about the theme.
  • Materials and Methods. This section contains descriptions of all methods, which have been used during the experiments, along with instructions to them. In addition, the ‘Materials and Methods’ segment includes all significant technical data about laboratory equipment and expendable materials (reagents, tubes, cell cultures, etc.) that were requested during the research. In other words, this section is fulfilled with highly specific technical information, which is of interest only for those scientists who wish to repeat the performed experiments, examine the new methods used in the research or perform an independent expertise to test the correctness of the obtained results.
  • Results. The main goal of this block of material is to demonstrate and justify the results of all the experiments that have been performed during the tests. Usually, in this section scientist focus on the data from the experiments and interpretations of the different research techniques. Additionally, it may contain explanations of some points that are crucial for the understanding of the author’s thoughts and concepts or methods that allow improving existing techniques.
  • Discussion. This is the segment where authors explain the received results, propose the audience new original interpretations of the specific phenomenon and hypothesize about new methods of research or extra options that have been created during the research. In addition, it serves as a crystallizing center for all unique author’s concepts, providing author’s theses and scientifically valuable ideas that can induce changes in the contemporary paradigm.
  • References. Obviously, this part of the research paper is dedicated to all academic papers, articles and studies that have been used in the original research. Regardless of the types of the academic paper, this section always contains complete information about all literary sources, such as data about the first publication date, authors, title, journals in which it has been published, etc.

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