Reading Original Scientific Literature

Approaching primary scientific literature (research reports in refereed journals) for the first time can be daunting and you may feel like you are reading something in a foreign language, however it is important to become comfortable browsing the literature. It can often be a source of interesting ideas for projects. If your background in the area is weak you may want to review the topic in your introductory text.

Begin by skimming the abstract. Is the study related to your study? Try to get a general idea of the major findings and if they appear to be relevant, continue by reading the introduction. This will help frame the study. Skim the methods noting differences in the author's approach and yours. As you move through the paper ask yourself some of the following questions?

1. What was the major purpose of the study? (Intro)

2. What organism(s) was studied? Is it the same one you studied? (Intro/Methods)

3. What variables were studied? Were they the same ones you used? (Intro/Methods)

4. Did any conditions differ between your study and the one reported in the literature? (Methods)

5. What were the major results of the study? (Pay special attention to figures and the author's description of them). (Results)

6. Try to determine what the author considers the major contribution of the study. (Discussion)

The first time you skim a paper it's relevance to your own study may not be clear, however it is often advisable to revisit papers several times. Each time you will glean something new from them.

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Edited 8-02-03