Alverno Guide to How to Read a Primary Scientific Research Article 

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.

Ask yourself:

  1. According to the abstract, what is the main point of the paper?
  2. According to the introduction, what do we know about related systems?
  3. According to the introduction, what do we know about this system?
  4. What question was this experiment designed to answer and why is it important to answer this question?
  5. What did the authors do to answer the question?
  6. What were the most important findings?
  7. According to the discussion, what do the data mean?
  8. Do you agree with the authors’ interpretation of the data?  Is there other evidence that might be important in interpreting the data?
  9. What would you do differently? Or What would your next experiment be?

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Last update: 5/23/03 by Rebecca Burton, Dept. of Biology, Alverno College