Saturday, July 9, 2016

Understanding Scientific Papers (Part 2)

My revenge on bad scientific writers
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I described the basics to reading a scientific paper in Understanding a Scientific Paper Part 1, but there are still more tricks to understanding a scientific paper. They are clearly not written for the general public, and academese is an unavoidable hurdle. Once you unravel this arcane language, you'll soon see that most of the babble on paper is a euphemism for things in the vulgar, material world. After reading one paper, I spent weeks wondering what was the "background, ultraviolet radiation" that interfered with photometers during the day. Then, my professor pointed out that it was sunlight. Learning to understand scientific papers requires you to think in a new way, and I have found some tips helpful for making this process easier.

Some Useful Tips

  • Have a Research Goal
  • The usual research goal is conducting a similar experiment. But it could also be writing a book, writing a blog post, inventing an instrument, make a lifestyle change, or learning about cutting edge technology. Whatever the goal is, this will help inspire interest and give you focus while you are reading. The research goal also gives you an application for your newly acquired knowledge, making you an active learner with better retention. Because you are taking knowledge from the abstract context of the paper to the practical level, your comprehension will improve.

  • Print Hard Copies and Annotate
  • The research goal should dictate what notes you will take. I prefer to use something conspicuous like a red pen.

  • Highlight Spelled-out Abbreviations
  • This will help you keep track of the countless abbreviations that follow. Scientists love to abbreviate, and they do it very often.

  • Read Multiple papers in the same area of research
  • Some papers explain different parts of the research better than others, which is helpful when you can not understand one paper at all. In addition, scientific papers often reference and compare their methods to other researcher's methods. Sometimes they use a theory from other researchers, but they barely explain it. So, reading the other papers will help you follow those discussions. A good source of further reading material is the References at the end of the paper.

  • Make Mnemonics to remember basic scientific facts
  • Knowing your basic scientific concepts can make it easier to visualize and understand what's happening in the experiment. For instance, the aeronomy papers I'm reading often talk about instruments taking measurements in the upper-mesosphere and thermosphere. To imagine where these instruments are, I made up a mnemonic for the atmospheric layers in order of descending altitude: "Emus Train My Scarlet Tiger". This stands for Exosphere, Thermosphere, Mesosphere, Stratosphere, Troposphere. Now, I know that the instruments are flying in the second and third highest layers of the atmosphere. That's higher than airplane and weather balloon flights, so you'd need a rocket to get that high! Just by knowing this little mnemonic, I can imagine where the experiment is taking place.

  • Reread and persist
  • Sometimes, you make new connections after the second or third time. This happens especially after you read other sources or look up new definitions.

  • Try to explain it to others
  • Just like having a research goal, having to teach others forces you to bring all those abstract ideas down to a practical level. There's also that cliche that you remember 90% of what you teach. You can do this by having conversations, writing blog posts, making an infographic, or making your own Dummy's guide. Just be sure that you don't end up over-simplifying concepts or "dumbing down" the information. From my experience, the most complex concepts and still be accurately communicated to the average person as long as you elaborate enough and include appropriate comparisons. There may be technical details that you omit because they aren't relevant to understanding the purpose and implications of the research.


    For me, reading scientific papers has been an intellectually humbling experience. It also made me more capable of independent thinking. Because of this, I think that proponents of scientific literacy should encourage students to read scientific papers from the databases instead of second-hand from scientific articles or pop science books. Students can benefit by overcoming their intimidation of science, and they can make more informed decisions about their health, environmental policies, and scientific funding. At the very least, it's one way to show off your education to friends and family members.

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