how to read scientific literature for the non-scientist (and where to find it) pt. 2

how to read scientific literature for the non-scientist (and where to find it) pt. 2

We continue our deep dive into learning how to read scientific literature by taking a closer look at two sections of the scientific journal article: Methods and Results. These sections provide the very foundation of the article, the skeleton from which the experiment or study that the article discusses was performed.

How do you read scientific literature? Truly, this depends on you and you reasoning for seeking out that literature and your intended use for the scientific article. If you are reading for leisure, you can easily get away with skimming through the Introduction, Results, and Discussion sections.

These will give you exactly the information you’re looking for, assuming you’ve determined that the article answers your focal questions after a quick inspection of the Abstract.

However, if you’re reading to answer a question in a debate, to write a research paper, or even if you want to integrate existing scientific literature into your own work, you’ll need to give at least equal attention to each part of the scientific article. We’ll proceed in this guide as if you need the scientific journal article for non-leisurely reasons.

Table of Contents

Discussing Methodology in a Scientific Article

Why Does the Research Paper Writer Share their Methodology?

The Importance of Results vs. Discussion in a Scientific Article

What the Hell is a P-Value and Why is it So Important?

Statistical Significance vs. Anecdotal Significance

Discussing Methodology in a Scientific Article

Although it is arguably one of the most boring parts of the scientific research paper format (sorry not sorry), the methods section is incredibly important to communicate to readers just how the researcher arrived at the conclusions presented in the article.

This is critical as the methods can make or break an experiment. There are many different ways to solve problems and answer burning questions, and this is truly where the creativity lies in science and even artistic expression can come through here, especially when the experiment calls for crafting things such as puzzle boxes for cognitive research.

As mentioned above, your needs for seeking out a scientific publication will determine whether it’s necessary for you to read the Methods section or not, and the level of detail you seek from it. For example, today I was reading an article on canine cognition, and, since I was only looking for specific information, I read only the Introduction and the Results.

However, in the Results, there were acronyms and measurements mentioned that I did not understand. So, I had to return to the Methods section to fully appreciate the material.

Let’s briefly pause here: Please understand that I am not promoting a snubbing of the work done to craft a research paper. Scientists put a lot of hard work and dedication into the work that they do, and that includes writing the scientific literature. I’m simply providing a more approachable way to read scientific publication for the masses.

Now, let’s carry on!

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Why Does the Research Paper Writer Share Their Methodology?

So, if it’s so boring, why share it? The primary reason for outlining the methodology used to perform an experiment is for the purpose of replication. What does this mean?

A large part of research is performing evidence-based practices to arrive at a solution to the problem being addressed in the best, most productive way possible. (In the case of new, trail-blazing research, the methodology must be innovated. So, this is not the case we’re referring to in this discussion.)

Replicating methodology that has been proven to work in a given field is a surefire way to yield results that strengthen (or debunk) current scientific theories. After all, that’s what research is all about – testing hypotheses to either prove or disprove them!

This is why keeping up with scientific literature is so important, as researchers are then able to apply the most current methods of field- or lab-based research to their studies and therefore, yield the most accurate results.

From the public perspective, describing the methods used in a research experiment (and the official approvals and licensing acquired to perform said experiments) ensures transparency in the work and subsequent publication.

Detailing the way a team or individual went about seeking the answer(s) to their hypothesis makes it clear that the results were not simply made up out of thin air. [For a brief note on the fabrication of data in scientific literature, see Part 1 of this guide.]

As the researcher walks the reader through the process, it becomes clear, later in the Results, Discussion, and Conclusion sections, why the data was interpreted the way it was, and why the specific results were achieved.

This is partially why there can be so many different interpretations of data. Everyone’s minds work in unique ways, and one person may craft a methodology that is understandable to them, whereas another would have done it in a completely different way, and may have arrived at different, but not necessarily opposing, results.

The Importance of Results vs. Discussion in a Scientific Article

And now, the results! What we all love (or hate) to see. What is a scientific paper without the Results?! Well, that would be a scientific literature review, but that’s for another time. Anyhow, a proper, informative research paper will always dedicate two sections to reviewing the data of an experiment. One will be the Results section, and the other, the Discussion. (I guess you can also count the Conclusion in there so, 3? 2.5?)

What is the difference between the Results and Discussion section of a scientific research paper? The Results, as we discussed in Part 1 of this guide, is meant to present the data yielded by the experiment in the most matter-of-fact, objective way possible. This section is where you will see all of the outcomes of the statistical analyses, whether it be graphs, answers to a survey, a map of home ranges of a species, etc.

The beautiful thing about the Results section is that it gives the reader a chance to draw their own interpretations before the writer does. Remember how I noted that everyone’s minds work a little differently? Well, here is where that really comes into play. Imagine that the Results section is like the blotch painting in a therapy session.

The psychiatrist can present to you a painting that was created with a specific technique. The artist knew what they saw in the painting, but by objectively presenting it to others without added interpretation, this gives the viewer a chance to formulate an image for themselves.

The Results are that painting when the psychiatrist asks “What do you see?” and the Discussion is the painter walking you through what they envisioned as they created the image.

What the Hell is a P-Value and Why is it So Important?

Something you’ll see quite often in scientific literature is the damned p-value. Now, just so you know, there is a LOT of debate surrounding the p-value and whether it’s still a useful tool for measuring the significance of data.

We won’t get into that here. For now, we’ll stick to the notion that it is still the statistical cornerstone of the valuation of data significance – statistical significance, that is.

(I specify statistical significance because it is important to remember that any data yielded from an experiment to which a researcher dedicated their hard work, time, and oftentimes, money, is significant and deserves to be acknowledged in the same way statistically significant data does.)

So, you may or may not have seen this before: p-value < 0.05. Don’t run away! This isn’t as math-y as it looks. All this depicts is the probability (p) of achieving a specific result, assuming that the chances of observing the null hypothesis are less than 0.05, otherwise written as 5%.

(The null hypothesis is one of two hypotheses in a research experiment. It assumes the scientist is wrong about their experimental predictions, or simply that the experiment did not have the predicted effect.)

The opposite of the null hypothesis is the alternative hypothesis, which is the statement the scientist makes in their predictions of results yielded by the experiment. For instance, my prediction (alternative hypothesis) in studying a colony of ants is that they will not be happy if I pour a ton of honey into their anthill. The null would then be that the honey would not make a difference in the emotional stability of the ant colony.

If I perform this test and find that the ants were pissed off at me, and the statistical analysis yielded a result of p < 0.05 (meaning that the chances of this result occurring by random chance was less than 5%), then I can reject the null hypothesis. I can then accept my alternative hypothesis, and say with confidence that ants don’t appreciate honey being poured into their anthill!

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

Statistical Significance vs. Anecdotal Significance

Why is this at all necessary? Naturally, people like to share information with each other. Part of doing that is sharing information anecdotally – by word of mouth. Unfortunately, in science, that won’t cut it, as there’s no way to prove and build on information if all we do is talk about it without testing or analyzing it. That’s where statistical analysis comes in.

This is also a huge part of why scientific literature is so important and needs to be made more accessible to the public. There are so many urban myths that need to be debunked, and the only way to do that is with proper access to empirically-tested, peer-reviewed information.

For instance, one of the most common myths that still gets around to this day (and gets deeply under my skin) is the idea that coyotes lure pets into their pack to ambush and consume them. Any time someone brings this up, it is based on misinformed, anecdotal information with extremely inaccurate interpretation of animal behavior.

There has not yet been one study that has documented evidence of luring behaviors in any Canid species. If we found evidence of such behaviors, we could begin running field tests to further understand why and when it happens, what types of animals are targeted for ambushes, etc.

But so far, this is only a myth told by ranchers and angry pet-owners who continue to leave their pets unattended outdoors. It has no basis in fact and therefore no ground in scientific knowledge.

Put Your New Knowledge Into Practice!

Now it’s time to put your new knowledge into action! Grab a scientific publication in any topic you may be interested in, and give it a try. Where can you read a scientific research paper? See the first installation of this guide if you’re unsure. There, I have provided a list of my favorite open-access resources for scientific literature.

Best of luck to you!  

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