How (and why) to read Scientific Research Papers – a student’s perspective

This post was written by AN, one of our Y13 students. She has been attending Journal Club since it started, and has developed strategies to read and understand unfamiliar research papers. She has also developed a love of research in the process.

Why Journal Club?

When starting sixth form at Notre Dame in 2015 I heard about a journal club in the Science department. Not being interested in a career in research, I thought this would be boring.

I went along anyway as I knew I needed to boost my UCAS application to medical school when the time came around. I understand we all have personal motives to do these things, but over the last 18 months, my views of the journal club have changed completely.

First meeting

I distinctly remember my first meeting (about atmospheric chemistry research) and having no idea what was being discussed around me. Up until this point I had no knowledge of CFCs and felt completely out of my depth around those who had read and understood the paper.

After being surrounded by specialist language for an hour, I still couldn’t blag my way through questioning so decided to learn to read a paper in a way I would find easy.

How to read a scientific paper

Reading such long and complex texts seemed a daunting task at first, but after breaking it into smaller steps I finally conquered the art of paper reading.

  • Firstly, I looked at the abstract and tried to understand the synopsis of the project. If it was something I was interested in, I’d proceed to read the paper. If not, I’d try another one.
  • Then I would read through the introduction, highlighting and making notes where I had previous knowledge or a keen interest to research further.
  • After this, I’d jump to the results and see the outcome of the project- essentially the reason we’re reading it!

As someone who enjoys learning about methodology, I often look at the diagrams and processes involved in the production of the paper, because the variety of techniques used to obtain the most valid results is never-ending. All the way along, I would highlight any words I didn’t understand, and look up their definitions with the help of Google and trusty Wikipedia at times.

Meet the authors

After learning how to pull a paper apart into small chunks, I started contributing more within our sessions, which often featured a lead author from the paper. I have loved learning about their experiences when working in their fields- most of which they didn’t start in- and how they turn their raw data into written words.

In particular, I remember a fascinating session on gold nanoparticles and DNA, while more recently a paper about pollution and Alzheimers. Almost all the papers we read are from researchers at UEA, and this has really shown how strong our research is in Norwich, and the opportunities at a local university are almost endless.

Growing confidence, and an unexpected interest in research

Journal club and I have slowly become best friends, and I enjoy seeing staff sitting in on sessions they have a particular interest in, as it extends far beyond the hardcore scientists. A love for science beyond the classroom has blossomed inside of me and these opportunities haven’t completely crossed off the optional research year in my degree that I was adamant I would’t do.

I hope other students at Notre Dame, and other establishments have the opportunity to attend sessions like these because they awaken a curious side of you. I always want to know more, and why things happen, and my experiences at journal club have made me better at finding ways to answer them.


One thought on “How (and why) to read Scientific Research Papers – a student’s perspective

  1. Pingback: Science Journal Club resources (1) – Nutrient Deposition in the Atlantic Ocean | NDHS Blog Spot

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