Thursday, June 30, 2016

Understanding a Scientific Paper (Part 1)

This image is from The Scientific Cartoonist
Scientific papers are the most arcane pieces of literature I've ever encountered. They make Nietzsche and Rousseau look like child's play. I had to read more than ten different papers over the course of three months before I understood any of them. Now, I think everyone should go through this trial, so they challenge their minds to understand new and abstract concepts. Scientific literature, unlike liberal education, makes you understand the objective world on a deeper level, and I would argue that it's more intellectually rigorous. Besides that, I also believe that we have a civic duty to become scientifically literate. We need to be responsible consumers and voters. Reading articles from scientific news outlets isn't enough for me because most articles lack enough detail for me learn about the theory and methodology. Also, some outlets such as Yahoo! Science are ad-ridden and poorly edited. And, the studies can be misrepresented or fraudulent. This isn't an article about judging the validity of a paper, which is a useful skill for reading papers from open access journals. Nor is it an article on finding scientific papers; getting around the steep paywall is a topic for another post. This is about learning how to think like a researcher.

Recommended Prerequisites

  • Natural Science:University Physics and Calculus
  • This is especially important if you are interested in astronomy, aeronomy, or even chemistry. It will allow you to have some understanding of the formulas and graphs. In addition, you will frequently see some basic terms such as "vector", "momentum", "derivative", etc. If you haven't taken the AP or college classes yet, Khan Academy and other online courses are a great resource. Just make sure you are taking University Physics which is calculus-based, not algebra-based "College Physics". Make sure you have learned differential, integral, and multi-variable calculus. If you want to read some of the more advanced literature, mechanics will also be useful.
  • Life Science: Biology, Chemistry, Anatomy and Physiology
  • This applies to medical, as well as biology papers. I've been able to understand most of the biology papers with only a high school education in those three subjects.
  • Social Sciences: Statistics and Probability
  • These prerequisites are not necessary for comprehension, but they're vital for judging the validity of the paper. The social sciences have a reputation for producing studies with less reproducible results and are more prone to researcher bias, so you will need to be aware of any statistical manipulation. Economics is more rigorous, so I would recommend learning Differential and Integral Calculus as well.

Parts of Research Paper

The outline described here is based on the papers I've read in the natural sciences. Other studies studies might have a different format. After reading each section, you should have learned about a certain aspect of the research. I've including some questions that can act as comprehension checkpoints.
  • Abstract
  • This is similar to the blurb on the cover of a novel. It's supposed to give you a brief idea of what the paper is about, and this is where you decide if the article is worth reading.
    Ask yourself, "What are these researchers studying? What contribution have they made to their field? Is this paper relevant to me?".
  • Introduction
  • This is where you can learn the background information about the paper's field of research. It may include an explanation for the phenomena, examples of past experiments done, and the typical instruments used. If you are entirely unfamiliar with this field, you should read the introductions of multiple papers before proceeding into the next section.
    Ask yourself, "What do the experts currently know about this topic? What is the phenomena? What causes the phenomena?
  • Observations/Data
  • This is where you'll see most of the graphs and tables for this experiment. Besides the figures, the paragraphs will tell you under what conditions this data was collected. The paragraphs often describe interesting events that affect the shape of the graphs, so look out for that. There may also be separate sections devoted to the instrument used, the method of data analysis, and the model chosen for comparing the experimental data.
    Ask yourself, "What's the dependent and independent variable? Why did the researchers study these variables? Did the researchers find a correlation? Where in the graph is the event described in the paragraphs?
  • Discussions
  • Here, the researchers interpret their results. Researchers will identify prominent trends and relationships. They may also compare their results to previous experiments or speculate about the causes behind their findings.
    Ask yourself, "What did the researchers discover? What were the likely causes behind their findings?"
  • Conclusion
  • This is the summary of the study. In addition, the researchers discuss the significance of their findings and how it would impact their field. They may also give suggestions for future studies in this field.
    Ask yourself, "What impact does this study have on its field? this How will future researchers build top of their work? References This is the list of all the sources cited in the paper. You should use to learn more about a theory or past experiment that's briefly mentioned. On online versions, you can click the doi number which is linked to where the source is published. Ask yourself, "Is there anything in the paper that the author barely explained, but I need to learn more? Does it have a citation?

Looking up Unknown Terms

Throughout your reading, you will definitely encounter a lot of jargon that can't easily be clarified with a Google search. While Wikipedia is likely to have an article on most of these terms, it has a weak editing system and it can be inaccurate. So, it should only be a last resort. Here are the best references I've found. Each one addresses a particular need, and I listed them in order from most general to most specialized.
  • The Free Dictionary
  • This site is best for getting a quick definition on basic concepts e.g gravity waves, ordinate, tidal force, etc. I prefer this dictionary over others such as Merriam-Webster because it includes graphics and it has the widest range of scientific terms in my experience.
  • The Encyclopedia Britannica
  • This source will give you a good background on the paper's subject matter or the instruments used. It has many factual, well-organized, and easily understandable articles with plenty of graphics. It's a good place to become familiar with the scientific concepts before getting exposed to the academic language. Searchable topics include nuclear fission, Fabry-Perot interferometer, and chaos theory.
  • Wolfram's Mathworld
  • This is the go-to place for mathematical equations and definitions. It will give you the formal definition, properties, explanations for variables, derivations, and applications.You can look up series, knots, theorems, etc. It's difficult to understand for people with a limited background in math, but at least each article included links to each concept that the topic is built upon.
  • Scholarpedia
  • This online encyclopedia has peer-reviewed articles by the scientific community. So, it's the scientists' attempt to make highly specialized knowledge accessible to the public. It's not so good for looking up general terms used in science that you can look-up using The Free Dictionary. However, it's the best source for finding esoteric theories and phenomena such as the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability or Hydromagnetic-Dynamo Theory. If the term is named after a scientist or will probably never be mentioned in a pop science discussion, you are more likely to find it in this source. Strangely, it doesn't bother to include articles about widely known scientific ideas such as climate change or string theory.
By now, you should know how to fill any gaps of knowledge when reading a scientific paper. This post covered what background knowledge you need, what you are supposed to learn from each section of the paper, and what resource materials you can use to further your understanding. This post turned out much longer than I expected, so I will have to continue on in the next post. In Part 2, I will give additional advice that will help make this process easier.