how to read scientific literature for the non-scientist (and where to find it) pt. 1

how to read scientific literature for the non-scientist (and where to find it) pt. 1

Authentic scientific literature is often stuck behind paywalls. These barriers pose serious challenges to accessibility for students and STEM professionals, but even more so for non-academic STEM readers.

Further, academic literature is SO DIFFICULT to read! To help you get a better handle on this, check out the guide below on how to read scientific literature (and where to find it).

Table of Contents

Accessibility of Scientific Literature

How Scicomm is Bridging the Gap

Where to Find Scientific Articles

How to Read a Scientific Article

A Final Note

Accessibility of Scientific Literature

Many people that may or may not identify as “non-scientists” are still very much interested in acquiring and learning scientific information. In present times, the pursuit of legitimate scientific research must be encouraged throughout all communities, no matter their level of education or privilege, and regardless of whether they identify as scientists or not.

Scientists of all disciplines have been trying for years to improve the accessibility of scientific literature. Even academics and researchers find themselves barred from a multitude of journals due to forms of gate-keeping such as publishing, subscription, or high membership fees.

One of the biggest challenges we face as scientists in this day in age is the zeal with which many of us pursue and share research-based information, accompanied by the dilemmas we face in being able to share it outside of academia. Our ability to share this information in a way that is approachable and understandable to the general public is lacking as well.

I believe a large part of why there is a social chasm between scientists and non-scientists is this very issue of accessibility. In addition to the heavy use of jargon that scientists practice in many disciplines and the number of hoops people have to jump through in order to just get their hands on scientific journals is nigh unacceptable.

(The heavy use of jargon is particularly problematic. Such language can be quite intimidating not only to the general public but also to individuals new to the field – first-generation academics, especially.)

How Scicomm is Bridging the Gap

Fortunately, we see a rise in efforts to increase the accessibility of scientific literature to the public. Frustratingly, these changes are not headed by the journals responsible for disseminating scientific literature – but by the scientists themselves.

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Dr. Michael Eisen, for example, has been working on a way to improve the accessibility of taxpayer-funded research literature to the public. Dr. Eisen has reached out to the whole of Twitter in efforts to grow support for this initiative.

Many medical professionals have expressed concern over the accessibility of medical research to the public. This concern has been primarily related to alarm over growing distrust for medical professionals (something nurses and doctors on TikTok are not helping to resolve – but that’s a conversation for a later date).

The increasing prevalence of public disregard for basic biology and/or lack of education on biological sciences has played a role here as well.

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Some scientists, like myself, have dedicated their entire career to scicomm (AKA, “science communication”) and the overarching goal of increasing accessibility of scientific information to all.

Some prominent examples of this are influencers on “Science Twitter,” such as Ph.D. student Earyn McGee, host of the weekly game, Find That Lizard. In this game, McGee shares one weekly photo depicting a lizard camouflaged in its natural environment. Players must find the lizard in the picture against the odds of the animal’s natural defense – blending in with its environment!

Earyn first posts a video or photo of the lizard in question, along with its species name and a fun fact about the ecology of the species, then sends the players on a search to “find that lizard.”

When participants believe they’ve found the lizard, they either comment on the tweet or retweet it with their guess as to where it is and the hashtag #FoundThatLizard! Earyn always follows the game with the answer, zooming into the picture, and circling the animal.

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Other scicommers, like myself and Dr. Kory Evans, create periodic Twitter threads wherein either a scientific article is broken down in simple, easily comprehensible terms and in such a way that is engaging by the use of memes or gifs.

My threads are weekly, typically falling on Wednesday mornings or afternoons, highlighting one scientific article for that week. The focal material could be randomly chosen or inspired by discussions in Science Twitter or the whole of the wildlife- and animal-lovers’ realm.

Dr. Evans, on the other hand, uses an incredibly unique approach, finding common ground with those interested in biology and fish with music! His Twitter series, “Hip Hop Fishes,” highlights one species of fish per thread, likening the fish to the lyrics of the chosen song.

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With all this in consideration, if you are interested in finding easily-digestible scientific information but you don’t want to go looking for formal literature, Twitter is one of the best places to find that information quickly and in a highly-approachable format!

Simply do a hashtag search for #ScienceTwitter or #scicomm and you’ll find a wealth of information in all kinds of scientific disciplines!

For those that want to go straight to learning how to read scientific literature for themselves, the next few sections are for you…

Where to Find Scientific Articles

The first thing you’re going to want to do when preparing to read a scientific article is make sure you are getting your literature from an ethical, reputable, peer-reviewed journal. A few of my favorite journals and databases for open-access scientific literature are listed below:

Note: My studies are in the fields of ecology, ethology, animal cognition, and environmental management. My journal recommendations are based on my academic career and personal experience. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments if you feel that I have missed some strong resources.

I would strongly suggest against the use of Elsevier for your scientific literature needs, as this is not an ethical publisher and exploit scientific literature for profit (yes, even with freely available, open access literature, Elsevier was found to have made over 1 billion dollars – and the scientists who wrote the literature Elsevier publishes saw not one dime of it). You can read more about the widespread academic shunning of Elsevier here.

How to Read a Scientific Article

Now that you’ve found the articles you want to read, you need to know what to expect from the article: what parts do you absolutely have to read, what parts can you skim through, etc.?

Of course, each part of the article is useful information and is suggested to include for a thorough understanding of the literature. Still, I do understand that, unless you’re replicating the experiment to compare your own results, you don’t have to read the Methods section, for example.

Below you’ll find a short guide on the structure of a research paper and how to read scientific literature according to section.


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The Anatomy of a Scientific Article

Each part of a scientific article has a distinct purpose in communicating the intention, process, results, and future applications of a scientific experiment. Fortunately, this is not something you have to figure out on your own – the sections are always labeled, and – generally – are always in the same order.

You may find in differing fields that the order slightly changes. For example, in comparative cognitive research, I’ve read articles in which the results and discussion came before the methods. Whereas, in ecological literature, this order is reversed.

Still, the sections will always be clearly labeled for ease of navigation through the article. Here are some examples of what to expect from a scientific article.

Abstract

At the beginning of every scientific article, there should be an abstract. The purpose of the abstract is to give the reader a brief overview of the contents of the paper. It is the equivalent of reading the back of the book for a scientific publication.

You won’t possibly get all the vital information presented in the article. Still, you will, at least, be able to determine if this article has the core information you are looking for. This will be the case whether you are reading the literature for fun, or if you are using this information in a research paper you are writing or a similar project.

If, by reading the abstract, you determine that this is the type of information you’re looking for, then the next thing I recommend doing is taking a look at whether the article is open-access or not.

What this means is that you will be able to freely download and read the article without the worry of any access fees or institutional logins. (Note that some journals do not allow scientific articles to be downloaded for free. However, they might allow you to read the article online with no cost.)

Introduction

Example of the Introduction section in scientific literature.
Example of Introduction section of a scientific article.

The Introduction of the article will provide the background for the experiment. It provides the basis on which the researcher founded their hypothesis and what stirred the research question.

This section will also introduce their study organism – the species they observed for the duration of the experiment – and critical elements of that organism’s biology, ecology, behavior, etc. that are central to the project and hypothesis.

The Introduction should never be too dense and will typically be a gentle transition into the paper, giving you further information on whether this is the right paper for you. (I’ve had many times where I believed, based on the Abstract, that I needed an article. Yet, upon reading the Introduction, I recognized that the focus was not quite right for my purposes.)

This is a vital point for learning how to read scientific literature. It’ll save you a lot of time if the paper happens to not be on your topic!

Methods

Honestly, as you progress in learning how to read scientific literature, you’ll see that this part is optional. Unless I am seriously interested in replicating the experiment or incorporating some of the methods into my work, I do not enjoy reading the methods section. If for some reason, I do read this section, this is typically where my brain stalls.

Besides the potential of replicating the practices used to produce the results discussed in the article, another reason to read the Methods section would be if you have any doubts or concerns about the results.

That said, take it easy on yourself and thoroughly read the Results and Discussion before deciding if you need to go back to the Methods section for a better understanding of the paper.

A fair warning, though: I’ve found on the many occasions I’ve allowed myself to skip the Methods section altogether, I missed crucial information such as the explanation of acronyms or jargon for certain parts of the experiment – the site, animals studied, etc.

There may be some essential information scattered in this section. So, you can skim through it if you don’t have the energy or desire to read it.

Results

Learning how to read scientific literature requires that you know the difference between the Results and Discussion.

The results section is only meant to present precisely that – the results of the experiment. Here is where you’ll typically find all the numbers: X% of animals displayed Y behavior, etc. This section is meant to be as objective as possible, allowing the reader to potentially draw their own conclusions before the researcher presents their own.

This is also the section in which you’ll find the figures and tables of the paper – these are essential to clearly communicate the quantitative (numerical) data of the experiment.

(Note: The difference between a figure and a table in a research article is that the figure typically includes a graph, illustration, or photo of sorts, while a table is simply a list of information organized into, well, a table!)

An example of a scientific figure.
Example figure from one of my own papers on USDA APHIS Wildlife Services lethal management of coyotes.

Every figure you see in a scientific article will have a caption that further explains the information represented by the graphic. Within the graphic should be a legend, axes labels, and, if necessary, labels for points on the figure as well. This information is to demonstrate the research results in as straight-forward a way as possible, often to compare multiple experimental samples.

The example figure above portrays three elements of the research. Without looking at the caption, are you able to discern all three parts?

The three factors being illustrated by this graph are:

  • the number of coyotes killed per year
  • the years on record
  • the states that participated in mass lethal removal.

One of the primary challenges in creating compelling graphics is inclusivity. Yes, inclusivity even plays a role in the composition of a graph! Why is this? Well, imagine if you were looking at this graph as someone who is colorblind. You wouldn’t be able to discern a majority of the figure, as nearly half of the states are represented of hues of red and blue.

Although I was very proud of this graphic when I first made it, in retrospect, it could have been done better.

Figures are meant to be easy on the eyes, but the focus should never be entirely on aesthetics. When scientists get too caught up in the prettiness of the graph, or maybe, if they don’t pay that aspect any mind at all, the information can get lost in all the lines and dots and not convey information effectively whatsoever.

If the figure does not contain any clear labels (this is not ideal), try looking at the caption to see what exactly you should be interpreting from the image. Figures are also typically explained quite thoroughly in the caption. However, they will also be expanded upon in the Results and Discussion sections of the article.

Discussion

The Discussion section goes hand-in-hand with the Results section. (Honestly, this, along with the Introduction section, will probably be the most comfortable areas for you to learn how to read scientific literature. It’s often the only other section where the scientists are speaking plain English.)

Where the Results section is dedicated to the objective presentation of the results of the experiment – that is, no interpretations are drawn from the results, rather, the statistical analysis is discussed as matter-of-factly as possible – the Discussion section gives the scientist a chance to communicate what they think are the:

  • significance of the findings
  • potential applications of the findings
  • the meaning of the statistical results as it relates to their initial hypothesis.

Everyone can have their own interpretation of the presented data, of course, and you may even find that you disagree with the author, or may have further questions as to how they drew the conclusions they present. And guess what, that’s not a bad thing! That’s just science! Information is published to be replicated and proven true or false. And that’s it!

You’re not crazy for disagreeing with the author, or for not thoroughly grasping the results. What you can do in this case is go back to the methods and results to review the intent of the project if you find yourself confused. Or, you might simply need more background on the topic to assist your understanding. If this is the case, try visiting the Bibliography and look up some of the articles on which the researcher based their work.

Conclusion

This section honestly is just a reiteration of the Discussion. I’m not going to sugar-coat it; I hate writing conclusions because I feel like I’m just repeating myself – which, I guess, is the point.

However, the slight difference between the Discussion and Conclusion is that the Conclusion includes – in my opinion – one of the gems of the article, the suggestion for further research.

This is one of my favorite parts of the paper, as an M.Sc. student and an all-around inquisitive soul. It is an invitation to a new frontier, a call to action, and a confirmation that we will never know everything and there will always be further questions!

If you’re truly up for an adventure into the rabbit hole, by looking up the research suggestion made in the Conclusion (depending on the year of publication). You can also check out the cited articles in the Bibliography. Here, you can find a world more of literature to soak up as a continuation of the article you just finished.

Researcher conducting a scientific experiment.
Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

A Note About Fabrication of Results and Science Doubters

I’ve recently run into a few Twitter discussions about conspiracy theories regarding scientific journals and how all of the information is made up and there was never any research to begin with.

Firstly, I’d like to draw attention to the fact that my recommendations here are for peer-reviewed journals. The significance of peer-review cannot be understated, and is only one part of the filtering system if you will, that keeps fabrication and other false information out of scientific publications.

If, by chance, a paper is published or makes past the review process with false information or manipulated results, there are editors, reviewers, whistleblowers, and many people who, frankly, put their careers on the line to call out this erroneous information.

The entire purpose of the publication of scientific information is to spread knowledge and novel research methods throughout the scientific community to answer questions. Scientists often use their own money (if not funded by grants) and time on their research and spend years conducting studies in order to share their findings with the world.

Sure, some scientists do it for the fame or for the authority to their name. But most are not wasting decades in school and tens-to-hundreds of thousands of dollars just for clout.

Secondly, the road to publication is not an easy one. Each and every step of the research and writing process has to be approved by one or more people or a board of sorts (for example, in research involving animals, individuals or research teams must have their methods approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC), permits must be obtained from local, state, and perhaps even federal authorities, depending on the project, and much more. That is all required before the research actually begins.

Once all of this is approved, the execution of the research can be as brief as a few months or take several years to complete. This process can take several months and even up to a year or longer. (I’ve been waiting for approximately one year to obtain a permit from the state of California to perform non-invasive studies of coyotes in various wilderness areas.)

Then comes the step of analysis – a daunting step, as this is the moment of truth for researchers to find whether their hypothesis was right on the dot or if they’ve been “wrong” the whole time. Although being “right” or “wrong” does not negate the significance of the research, unfortunately, there are some journals that refuse to publish researchers’ work without “correct” results.

So yes, some researchers do all of that work without the guarantee that their work will be appreciated!

I say all this to say, please take it easy on us scientists and understand that there is a lot we do to answer the questions we all have. Sharing that information with the public is a passion of many of ours and the very reason we do what we do. Take a break from the conspiracy theories and try to discover the literature for yourself. You may learn something new.

If you ever feel that you doubt a scientist’s research, keep that in mind, and look for the information yourself using this guide!


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