Let’s face it. Scientific articles can be very hard to read. Once you get past the pay wall, you come face to face with a monstrosity of jargon. Even if you understand the words, the format of these publications can be difficult to follow.
In my last post, I offered some tips for separating fact from fiction in the popular press. In this post, I’ll describe some methods for deciphering scientific articles. By the end of this blog, you should be able to uncover the most important information from any scientific primary source.
Step 1: Find an article and read the abstract.
On the Carolina Longevity Institute website, we link back to the original scientific we mention whenever possible. However, many journals require readers to pay subscription fees—which can be pricey—in order to actually read the full articles. Consequently, we occasionally link to a third party’s summary. However, we only do so if that summary contains a link to the original source (so you can follow the trail if you want to).
Regardless of how you reach the original document, the first thing you’ll notice will be a paragraph with a heading that reads, “Abstract.” An abstract describes the researchers’ question, methods, and findings. If you don’t have access to the full article, sometimes the abstract is all that you have to work with. That little bit of text can give you a brief overview of everything that’s hidden within the text:
- What the researchers are trying to do. (For example, they could be trying to figure out how to reduce wrinkles).
- How they plan on finding their answers. This is also known as their methodology or methods. (Are they testing mice, worms, fruit flies, humans?)
- A short sentence about what they discovered. (Did inserting young blood into older rats reduce wrinkles?)
- Assumptions for what the research could mean for future studies.
If you’re interested in a topic and you don’t know where to start, you can also use abstracts to help your search. Since they give you a broad overview of the article, you can quickly read them instead of the whole article to see if you want to dig in further.
Step 2: Read the introduction.
Let’s assume that you’ve either found an open access article (one that’s free to view for everyone) or paid a fee to get through the paywall. You’ve just read the abstract, and you’ve decided that the article sounds interesting. Your next step should be to read the introduction.
The introduction section of scientific articles sets the scene for what’s about to happen. It’s like the recap part of a television series. It tells you about why you should be interested and what related work has been going on in the field. The introduction usually reveals at least 3 things:
- A specific research question
- Reasons why this research question is important
- The results of other experiments about similar questions
In short, the introduction should tell you why a reader or researcher should care about the study and how the study is different from (or similar to) other studies.
Step 3: Skip the methods section.
Despite what all of your teachers might’ve told you, sometimes it’s absolutely okay and necessary to not read everything that’s written. Unless you are a researcher who is interested in the details of running an experiment, the methods section will most likely bore you to tears. In scientific articles, the methods sections are meant to increase the study’s replicability. Simply stated, this section is a step-by-step guide on how to run the experiment in order to get similar results.
A casual reader doesn’t need this information. The introduction will typically provide a short overview of the researchers’ methods. Just make sure that you know if the experiment is done with human subjects or animal models. Remember: If something works for mice or worms, there’s no proof that it’ll definitely work for humans.
Step 4a: Read the discussion section.
After you skip the methods section, you’ll probably encounter a section called, “Results.” Skip that for now, but you’ll come back to it in a minute.
The next section you should read will probably be called “Discussion”—although some writers blend the Discussion and Conclusion sections. While the introduction focuses on the research question, the discussion focuses on the answers. Researchers give an overview of their findings and describe why they matter to researchers and the public writ large. You can also determine what the researchers thought was important about their study by reading the discussion section.
When writing the discussion section, scientific researchers are often encouraged to do three or four things:
- Make their results culturally or medically significant
- Speculate about what their findings could mean for future research
- Describe the limitations of the study
- Sometimes offer suggestions for what the next steps in research
This section is extremely important because it explains the experiment’s results and what they mean out in the real world. If you’re reading the article because you want to see if a popular press article is fact or fiction, then this is the place to look. A discussion section that doesn’t line up with the emphasis of a popular press article should raise some red flags. If the experts don’t find a result significant, then the chances are that the finding probably carries less weight than the press insinuates.
Step 4b: Use the Results section as a reference guide.
The discussion section will often refer to information from the results section. You might want to return to that part of the text to get a better understanding of the discussion.
The results section is usually very data-heavy, frequently referring to mathematical models and statistics. Use this section like you would use an encyclopedia and scan it for the information that you need. For example, say that the discussion section mentions a major increase in tau proteins (a distinguishing feature of Alzheimer’s disease). What do the researchers mean by a “major increase?” To find out, you’d scan the results section for the words “tau proteins.” With some practice, you’ll quickly be able to find the data you need (for example, a chart that says something like, “Tau proteins in certain participants increased by 65%.”
If you’re reading the document online, you could also use your browser’s Find function. Simply hold down Control (on PC) or Command (on Mac) and then hit the F key with a free finger. Type the word you’re looking for in the text box that pops up, and you’re on your way!
Learning about Longevity
With these steps in mind, you can decipher even the most difficult scientific arguments. Like every skill, however, separating fact from fiction requires practice. Make scientific literacy one of your New Year’s resolutions! If you would like to keep up to date with the latest longevity research, follow us on Twitter at NC_Longevity or read our newsletter, Healthspan Happenings currently posted here.