How to: Read a scientific research paper and come away smarter

Anthropologist Jennifer Raff offers this great guide, aimed at laypersons, that will help you learn more from reading the scientific research papers you find online and prevent you from succumbing to common mistakes that often show up in Internet flame wars. Step 1: Don't rely on the abstract to tell you what's going on — read the introduction first, instead.

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  1. More than the abstract: Research libraries are wonderful things. Many colleges will let members of the public into theirs.

    (Yeah, I know, I'm not going there.)

  2. It doesn't even need to be a research library. You'd be surprised what journals a public library card will give you access to. Minneapolis Public Library comes with online access to bunches.

  3. Each field has its own style and jargon. And statistical methods vary by field - the statistical analysis of a plant genetics paper will be nothing like the statistics of a human nutrition study. And immunology has its own style, because most genes and proteins have original names that are nothing like the what is later determined to be their actual function (which is often the opposite of the name).

    Also, some papers are good and some papers are bad. To tell them apart, you need to be familiar because the techniques in each field, and what a well designed experiment looks like compared to a badly designed experiment. A 2x2 climical trial with 600 subjects? I don't think so!

    So if you want to read scientific papers, focus on a specific subject. Spend a couple days reading a paper, then start over with a fresh hard copy. It will look completely different the second time through. Keep doing this, and in as little as 6 months you will see a noticeable improvement in your reading comprehension.

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