If you’re in a STEM field, chances are you’ll need to read primary literature – also known as research articles. And unlike books, effectively and efficiently reading a research paper requires a nuanced and systematic approach. When I first started reading research papers as a neuroscience major in college, it took considerable effort and time to make sense of it all. Since then, I’ve read through thousands of papers, published dozens of my own in peer reviewed journals, and can now crank through them with ease. Here’s the system I use.
1 | Determine the Purpose of Reading
Depending on the purpose and your goal in reading a research paper, your approach may differ considerably. Keep that in mind as we cover the following sections.
If you’re reading a paper as a requirement for a class, like I initially had to for my neuroscience courses, you will be focusing on comprehension rather than determining utility. You’ll need to know the study hypothesis, the methods they used, the findings, and the limitations of their conclusions.
As you proceed with your medical training, you will likely write many of your own research articles. After all, doing so is one of the most powerful ways to stand out and strengthen your medical school or residency application. In these instances, you are mostly referencing other research papers and it becomes more important to quickly determine relevance and value prior to committing a more in depth reading and analysis. You will also use papers as tools to figure out other papers to read by taking advantage of their own reference list.
Now that you’ve identified your primary goal, it’s time to begin reading.
2 | Don’t Read in Order
Not every section in a research article is created equal. Unlike reading a traditional book, I don’t advise you read a research paper in order.
First, you should read the title and the abstract to get an overview of the paper. If, at any time during your reading, you come across a word or acronym you don’t understand, stop and look it up. It’s not like a novel where you can infer the meaning and likely not see the word again. The language in research articles is generally pretty straightforward, and terms you don’t understand are often the scientific terms that are critical to your understanding of the paper and its findings.
Next, dive into the conclusion. Again, this is a research paper, not a novel, so you’re not running into any spoilers. The conclusion effectively summarizes the most pertinent findings.
Now that you have a better idea of what the paper is about, spend as much time as you desire going over the figures, methods, results, and discussion sections. The discussion will likely be the highest yield portion that requires the most amount of time, but to truly understand the paper you must also go over the methods and results.
3 | Understanding Significance and Limitations
A big element to reading papers is understanding the limitations of the study, which then allows you to more accurately determine its significance.
The biggest and most widespread mistake is jumping to the conclusion and not understanding the limitations and generalizability of a study. Look at any media article summarizing “new ground breaking research” and you’ll see what I mean. Towards the end of the discussion section in most any paper, you’ll find the author’s own interpretation of the limitations of their study. But, there are always many more limitations beyond what they mention.
There have been entires books dedicated to the nuances of statistics and extrapolating conclusions from the research, and this is something I may consider making a dedicated future video on. Let me know in the comments below so I can gauge interest. Most people know about randomization, placebo-controlled, and single or double blinded studies. That being said, there is so much more nuance to it. Here are a few examples:
- Study design: is the study retrospective, meaning looking back historically, or prospective, starting with individuals that are followed over time? Is it case-control, cohort, or cross-sectional?
- What are the end points used? If the study draws conclusions about heart disease and health but only uses HDL as a surrogate marker, understand the surrogate is just that – an imperfect proxy.
- Biases. There are too many to cover, but selection, recall, sampling, confounding, procedure, lead-time, and the Hawthorne effect are all biases you should familiarize yourself with.
- Basic statistical analyses: sensitivity versus specificity, normal and skewed distributions, positive and negative predictive values, etc.
4 | Organize Your Notes and Thoughts
Over time, you’ll be reading dozens or even hundreds of research papers, and it becomes a challenge to keep everything straight. Again, depending on the purpose, there are a few options to consider.
If you’re reading as a class assignment, I recommend you print out the paper, highlight, and annotate in the margins as needed. More recently, I have done this on an iPad with Apple pencil, such that printing out was no longer necessary.
If, on the other hand, you’re reading in order to write your own paper, start using a citation manager immediately from the beginning. EndNote is often referenced as the rather expensive gold standard, but Mendeley is a free and quite sufficient alternative.
As soon as you begin reading papers, import them into your citation manager. In a separate Word document, begin jotting down the key points of the paper that are relevant to your own project. This notes document will serve as the main resource from which you will begin writing your own paper. Trust me, it’s much better this way, otherwise you’ll spend considerable time and effort hunting for facts from the dozens of PDF’s you’ve read.
5 | Proficiency in Research is a Long Term Game
Lastly, understand that a big part of reading speed in both regular books as well as research is your familiarity with the subject. I started off reading neuroscience papers slowly, but as my expertise in the area grew, I was able to breeze through them. I knew the anatomy and terminology like the back of my hand, and coming across terms like CA1 vs CA2 neurons of the hippocampus no longer required additional processing.
Similarly, when I first started diving into plastic surgery research, I didn’t know all the nuances of hand anatomy or principles of aesthetic surgery. But as I grew to understand more, reading and understanding the literature became second nature, and once again I was able to breeze through them.
It’s important to keep this in mind to make sure you don’t get discouraged. If you consistently apply yourself and read research articles and follow the steps I’ve outlined earlier, you’ll be tackling papers with ease in no time.
Like it or not, being proficient in research is an essential skill if you want to go to a top medical school or residency. There’s a science but also an art to bolstering a solid research CV and securing impressive letters of recommendation from your PI. You can check out my own personal list of research articles, abstracts, and presentations on my personal website at kevinjubbal.com.
Being proficient in research was a huge part of my own success getting into a top medical school and a highly competitive residency. It’s a challenging ordeal, and very few people know how to address this for maximal effectiveness. Through experimentation and uncommon techniques, I was able to create the systems that generated radically high publication rates in record time. Our advisors can teach you the same systems and help you highlight your own research projects to put your work in the best possible light.