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  • Writer's pictureJessica Liu

How to read a research article

Reading scientific literature is an essential skill for any developing researcher—but if you’re not used to reading this type of material, it can be intimidating to get started.

The anatomy of a research article

Before you read a paper, you should be familiar with its structure. Depending on the journal a paper is published in, these sections might be ordered differently or have slightly different names, but generally, most papers will have the following sections:

  1. Abstract: a brief summary of the paper, usually 500 words or less

  2. Introduction: an overview of the background, current state-of-the-art, and where the paper fits in to the context

  3. Materials and Methods: a detailed description of what techniques, materials, and analyses were involved in the experiments

  4. Results: the data, and some description of what the data mean

  5. Discussion and Conclusion: a summary of the paper’s findings, its implications, and next steps

Reading a research article is unlike reading a novel or a news article: you do not need to read it linearly or with equal attention for each section. So, how should you read an article while making the most of your time? Let’s dive into these sections in a bit more detail.


This section comes first and should also be read first. The abstract is essentially the entire paper, but distilled into a quick, five-minute read. It will describe what the article is about, provide some context and motivations for the studies, briefly mention some of the methods used, and summarize the researchers’ findings. It may also describe the implications of the findings or next steps. It contains all the important information in the article, and will give you a good idea of what to expect to get out of the paper. If you are not sure if the paper is applicable to the topic you are researching, read the abstract!


You should read this section carefully if you are unfamiliar with the topic. Otherwise, you can just skim quickly over it! Your time is valuable. If you’ve read many papers in the same field on similar topics, you will find that the introduction section contains similar information—you don’t need to read it carefully if you already know it.

Of special note is the last paragraph in the introduction. This paragraph typically summarizes the objectives, hypothesis, and findings of the paper. You should read this carefully.


If you read only one thing in a paper, make sure it is the results section! This section contains the figures and is the heart of the paper. You should definitely look through the figures and see if they match the authors’ conclusions. Does the data make sense? Read through the text thoroughly as well.

Discussion and Conclusion

This section does not need to be read as carefully as the results section, but you should still look through it as it will summarize the results, address any interesting or unexpected findings, mention caveats which need to be taken into consideration, and discuss possible next steps. If there’s anything you are confused about, or wonder if the authors looked at, check this section. Also, note that sometimes this section is two separate sections, or may be titled slightly differently.

Materials and Methods

Oftentimes, papers may be organized with this section sandwiched between the Introduction and Results sections, or placed at the end after the Discussion section. One mistake students often make is following this order when they read the paper. Another common pitfall is reading every single line of this section very carefully. This is not necessary, and is one of the reasons students might feel intimidated by research papers!

The goal of this section is to ensure reproducibility and transparency for other researchers, which is why there is so much technical detail in this section. However, if you’re a new student, then chances are, you will not need to know all of it. You should of course read through it, but do so after you have read the Results section so that you have some context for why things were done. Additionally, only the methods that are relevant to what you’re studying need to be read carefully. Other methods can be skimmed through instead.

Taking notes

So you’re about to read an article. How do you remember what you’ve read? Note-taking, of course! The best way depends on the individual. Some people keep a central repository of all their notes. Others highlight or write on a copy of the paper. Just the act of writing something down is helpful for remembering, and it’s even better if you can consult your notes months or even years down the line for a refresher.

When taking notes, you should try to answer the following questions:

· What is the main question asked by the researchers in the article?

· Why are they asking this question? (In other words: why is this important?)

· How will they answer this question?

· What data do they show, and how do they interpret the data?

Answering these questions can help you hone in on the most important aspects of the paper while you read it, and as a bonus, you will also end up with useful notes which you can use later on.

With all this in mind— happy reading!


A little bit about guest writer Jessica Lui:

She is a PhD student at Columbia University studying biomedical engineering, focusing on biomaterials for cartilage regeneration. Outside the lab, she is passionate about good food, mentorship of young women in STEM, as well as science communication!


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