When you start working in a new lab or working on a new research project, one of the first things to do is look up publications and learn about the field and what has been accomplished. This will help determine the experiments you will run. It gives you a foundation to build on. But how do you read a publication? How do you know it’s worth your while to muster through? Some publications are miles long with a million figures! EEKS! Don’t be frightened. Keep reading to find out how to tackle a complicated publication and not go crazy.
So first things first- finding a publication. There are many online search engines. PubMed, Google Scholar, and ScienceDirect are among the many you can use. Type in some key words and you should get some results. Then filter to your hearts content. And don’t forget review articles! In addition to original research articles, they are very helpful when you are entering a new area. Some publications might be free and others might be free through your organization. Yet others may charge you a small fee. View online or download the PDF. (I highly recommend using some sort of publication-keeper software program. Some are quite good. The program will keep all of your publications in one place and then when you are ready to write your own manuscript, you can call on the publications that you are looking to cite and the program will do the reference part for you as you move along with your writing. Pretty nifty!)
Now that you have the paper you want to read. It has small print, 12 figures, and is 26 pages long. Where do you start? Start with the abstract. It’ll highlight the major findings. Then skim through the paper. Every publication has the same general format- abstract, intro, methods & materials, results, discussion. Briefly go through each page and see what you’re up against. Some experiments will be much more interesting than others. Then get ready to tackle. You may already have a good understanding of the field and not need to read the introduction. The methods and materials might be important if you’re looking to do a similar experiment or compare the experiment you set up to the one the authors set up or learn a new experiment. So this is also an “easy” section. As you move on to results, you move on to the meat of the publication. Here is where you put your heavy duty thinking caps on. You should review the figures with respect and at the same time, skepticism. Someone put a lot of time and effort into that figure. They deserve a big high five. BUT! What do you think of their controls? What do you think of the method? What do you think about how they analyzed the data? Are they really representing what occurred or are they using clever statistics to prove their point? And if they are using clever stats, are they justified? What could have been done differently? Be critical. After all, when your time comes to submit a manuscript, you will have reviewers critical of your work! After you have moved your way through the results, you have a good idea of the story being told. How does it fit into the big picture? Moving on to the discussion section, the authors will describe their findings and what they mean. How does their explanation fit into what is known and what does it offer to the rest of the researchers in that area (and you!)? Do you agree? Did they do a good job convincing you?
As you read through a publication, it helps to take notes, make highlights and to re-write key concepts in a manner that you understand. Make good summaries. I used to keep a small journal where I wrote about papers that were important to my research and supported my findings. I also wrote about papers that didn’t support my findings and tried to analyze why. All of this is important for when you might have a meeting with your PI and they are asking why you are proposing to do a certain experiment. It’s also useful when you have your “Work-In-Progress” committee meetings or when you’re presenting at departmental seminars. With your little journal, notes, whatever method you are using to keep your summaries, you won’t need to re-read the paper with the same intense scrutiny. You can review your Summaries and answer questions from the audience with no problem!
Everyone has a different method for reading these complicated papers. No one will ever say it’s easy. But it’s doable and it should be done. And as you keep doing it, you will get better at reading long publications and it won’t take as long. (Insert “practice makes perfect” saying here) There are great papers out there with great information that will hopefully lead to solutions and help humanity. That’s the aim anyway, right? ;)