Finding the research behind the headlines: a brief guide to reading scientific papers

It seems almost daily that the media loudly proclaim ‘X causes cancer!’, only to announce the following week that ‘X cures cancer!’. Dramatic headlines reporting the latest, and often seemingly contradictory, scientific research have been printed on everything from medical research to the EU referendum. With the media our main source of information on these subjects, how do we know which story to trust? As Danae Dodge pointed out in her blog ‘On the Culture of Evidence’, you could ask an independent expert or check out the Sense about Science charity website, particularly their ‘For the Record’ section, where they ‘set the record straight’ on misrepresented science findings. Both are great options, however, what if you want to see the research results for yourself and draw your own conclusions?

Whilst research papers used to be solely accessible through subscription based journals such as Nature or Science, the ever increasing popularity of open access journals such as eLife, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals  and many more, is making it considerably easier for people to read, and make up their own mind, about the research behind the headlines. Open access journals are just that, completely open, allowing anyone to read the papers published by that journal.

That’s great, but aren’t research papers full of jargon? Well, yes, they will include a lot of subject specific terminology but then even scientists have to google unfamiliar terms. Reading your first research paper can be a little daunting due to the formal style of writing and the terminology used but knowing how papers are put together and what you are looking for can help to break them down into bite size pieces.

Most papers follow a basic structure:

Title– Specific, often wordy and descriptive

Abstract– Summary of the research, including key points from the introduction and results

Introduction– What’s been previously discovered about the subject,  which knowledge gap the research will fill and often a sentence or two summarising their results

Materials and Methods– How they conducted the research

Results– Often includes images, graphs and movies as well as text to describe the outcomes of each experiment

Discussion– What the results mean and how they fit, or don’t fit, with previous knowledge. Often includes ideas about further work to be done and speculation about where their results could lead

References– Listing the papers which discovered the knowledge written about in the introduction and discussion

Depending on your knowledge of the subject and what you are looking to find out, different sections of the paper will be more useful to you. For example, the abstract is a great summary but is quite dense and will only tell you what the authors have concluded.  If you previously haven’t read much about the subject then reading the introduction and discussion would give you the background of the research, what they found and how the results will impact current and future research, which would probably be more helpful. Equally, if you wanted to come to your own conclusions about the research then reading the results and comparing your conclusions to those given by the authors in the discussion would be better than reading the abstract.

Reading a research paper will give you insight into the results from a very specific research question. However, if you are more interested in gaining a general overview of a field of research then review papers are the way to go. Authors of review papers will bring together the results and conclusions of tens if not hundreds of individual research papers. This creates a paper that not only addresses multiple sub-topics within a subject but also highlights any conflicting research results and explores the potential reasons behind the conflict.

So next time you see a dramatic headline making miraculous claims, feel free to jump in and explore the science behind the headline!