First, make your own copy of the article. You will want to highlight
the main ideas, write comments, and note your own questions in the margins.
You may have to read sections repeatedly. Expect to spend much more time
reading a page of a technical article than you do reading a page of a textbook.
Read the title and the abstract (summary). This will provide you
with a basic road map of the paper. Note the date of the article.
Read the introduction. This will give you context such as what
has been done in this field and why this particular experiment was done.
Note words that you don’t understand. Look them up in the glossary of an
appropriate textbook. Make sure you’re comfortable with the vocabulary and
concepts before continuing.
Read the methods section. Pay particular attention to sample size,
possible confounding variables, controls, and other elements of experimental
design. You may need to map the experimental design if it is complicated.
Read the results section, paying special attention to the figures
and tables. Identify trends and outliers. Were the results statistically
significant? Before going on, ask yourself how you would explain the patterns
in the data.
Read the discussion and conclusions. This is where the authors
speculate on the reasons behind the observed patterns. In addition to evidence
from their own experiment(s), the authors will make reference to the works
of others. You might want to read some of the references cited. This portion
of the paper calls for careful analysis. While one generally assumes that
the authors correctly reported what they did and what they found, the evaluation
and interpretation of the data have a large subjective component. Honest,
well-informed people can have very different views on what the data mean.
It is up to you to decide whether the evidence presented is sufficient to
support the interpretations of the authors. You might have an interpretation
that is different from that of the authors.
Last update: 5/23/03 by Rebecca Burton, Dept. of Biology, Alverno College