How to read a scientific paper

Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article.

If you’re at the beginning of your career in science, you may be struggling with the same problem. It may help you to familiarize yourself with the 10 Stages of Reading a Scientific Paper:

1. Optimism. “This can’t be too difficult,” you tell yourself with a smile—in the same way you tell yourself, “It’s not damaging to drink eight cups of coffee a day” or “There are plenty of tenure-track jobs.” After all, you’ve been reading words for decades. And that’s all a scientific paper is, right? Words?

2. Fear. This is the stage when you realize, “Uh … I don’t think all of these are words.” So you slow down a little. Sound out the syllables, parse the jargon, look up the acronyms, and review your work several times. Congratulations: You have now read the title.

3. Regret. You begin to realize that you should have budgeted much more time for this whole undertaking. Why, oh why, did you think you could read the article in a single bus ride? If only you had more time. If only you had one of those buzzer buttons from workplaces in the 1960s, and you could just press it and say, “Phoebe, cancel my January.” If only there was a compact version of the same article, something on the order of 250 or fewer words, printed in bold at the beginning of the paper…

4. Corner-cutting. Why, what’s this? An abstract, all for me? Blessed be the editors of scientific journals who knew that no article is comprehensible, so they asked their writers to provide, à la Spaceballs, “the short, short version.” Okay. Let’s do this.

5. Bafflement. What the hell? Was that abstract supposed to explain something? Why was the average sentence 40 words long? Why were there so many acronyms? Why did the authors use the word “characterize” five times?

6. Distraction. What if there was, like, a smartphone for ducks? How would that work? What would they use it for? And what was that Paul Simon lyric, the one from “You Can Call Me Al,” that’s been in your head all day? How would your life change if you owned a bread maker? You’d have to buy yeast. Is yeast expensive? You could make your own bread every few days, but then it might go stale. It’s not the same as store-bought bread; it’s just not. Oh, right! “Don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.” Is Paul Simon still alive? You should check Wikipedia. Sometimes you confuse him with Paul McCartney or Paul Shaffer. Shame about David Bowie. Can you put coffee in a humidifier?

7. Realization that 15 minutes have gone by and you haven’t progressed to the next sentence.

8. Determination. All righty. Really gonna read this time. Really gonna do it. Yup, yuppers, yup-a-roo, readin’ words is what you do. Let’s just point those pupils at the dried ink on the page, and …

9. Rage. HOW COULD ANY HUMAN BRAIN PRODUCE SUCH SENTENCES?

10. Genuine contemplation of a career in the humanities. Academic papers written on nonscientific subjects are easy to understand, right? Right?

By Adam Ruben.

Source: How to read a scientific paper