I Don’t Understand Anything in These Papers!

By Michelle Antony, Peer Research AmbassadorI Don't Understand Anything in These Papers! By PRA Michelle.

Imagine this scenario: you’re eager to participate in undergraduate research and find a professor whose work interests you. You come across one of their papers and once you open it up, it’s in an alien language. This situation is all too familiar to many undergraduates (including myself). Hopefully, this how-to guide with some tips that have helped me in my research journey will be of use to you.

1) Start with a quick first pass

Most primary research articles are divided into the sections: abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion. In terms of taking a quick first pass, begin by reading the abstract where you can get a concise summary of the entire paper with major takeaway points. Continue onto the discussion when doing a brief overview to find major results and the importance of the work. Throughout your reading, make sure to take note or highlight key ideas and findings. Look up any words or abbreviations that are unfamiliar to you.

2) Complete an in-depth read

When going back to complete a more in-depth read, I recommend reviewing the figures; looking through the images, schematics, and tables gives you much of the information included in the results without the complicated experimental details. Oftentimes scientists write the results section of their papers based off of the figures they make first. Reading the results section next will give you a detailed understanding of the approach including the experiments performed and the data obtained from them. The methods section that follows is often dense and technical. Unless you need to conceptualize a certain procedure/technique being done or planning your own project/experiments, save this section for the end!

3) Synthesize and summarize

Finish by reading the abstract again and line by line, try to synthesize or translate that information into your own words. Ask yourself what the main question the researchers were answering was and write down any important conclusions that the paper came to.

Effective reading takes practice and strategy! It’s okay if the first article takes a while to digest and fully understand. Do the reading in sections and give yourself breaks in between. With time and practice, it will be quicker and easier.

Michelle is a junior double majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and Community Health. Click here to learn more about Michelle.