How to read a scientific paper effectively

4 minute read


It is very important to learn how to read a paper. This is something you will do for the rest of your life as a scientist, so it is better that you learn how to do this effectively as we’ll discuss some tips next.

The first step in a research work is the literature review. It will begin by opening Google, Scopus, or any other relevant search engines and typing the most important keywords for your work. You will also look into the papers that cite the ones you find interesting. You will look after scientists that have prominence in a given topic and learn about their collaborations. Let’s call this literature search.

In this activity you will potentially find hundreds of papers. So you will have to filter out which ones to read and this is much more effectively done if the researcher has a requirement for classifying a paper as important. In other words, the researcher must know how to select the papers which she/he should read in detail. A paper should not always be read completely, you have to be able to detect whether a particular paper is important to be kept for future citation in your work. My suggestions for requirements for checking if the paper is relevant are (i) pertinence to the problem you are solving in your research and (ii) relevance of the contribution presented in the paper.

If the problem solved is related to what you are investigating and the contribution is deemed relevant, the paper is naturally important for your research and should be read in detail so you know how to cite it. This is even more sensitive if the paper is recent (less than 1 or 2 years), because it is more likely that the reference is the state of the art.

It takes time and practice to select papers intuitively, as anything useful we learn in our lifes. The good news is that you have everything you need to do it: a computer, internet connection, and time to read. Read a lot and you’ll definetely improve your skills on doing this. This is an important requirement for your research career. The sooner you learn it, the sooner you will achieve your intellectual independence. Have you checked on any paper today?

So far we know that in the literature search process we have to select the papers that are related to the problem we are solving and have made significant contributions to the field. But where to find this information? Generally it is given in the abstract and/or the introduction section. The introduction ideally portraits a contextualization, motivation, justification, state of the art review, and the paper contributions. Generally each of these points are addressed separately in at least one paragraph. Check some papers you already read to confirm this.

Knowing the general structure found in the introduction section is equivalent to knowing where to find the information we have set as requirement for classifying each paper. Now you will be able to select more effectively which papers to read in detail. In general, you will read much fewer papers than what you find during your literature search, and this is completely ok. As the quantity of research work is huge nowadays, we have to be efficient in discarding what is not as relevant as the material we keep for reading in detail that will be more impactful for our research.

Once you have selected the papers that are relevant for you, it is time to read in detail. Start by the introduction, go to the results, and check the methods whenever needed to understand what is exposed as required. Maybe you’ll even need to read books to learn some topic you are not familiar with. It is ok, you’re on track. Ask for good background material to your advisor/acknowledgeable peers.

It is a good idea to keep a library of the relevant research work you find. Do this by saving the PDFs or using specific reference software such as Mendeley. It is also important to make your own notes about the research you read by summarizing it. Be organized, it will save you time in the future.