A Beginner's guide to reading research paper
Table of Contents:
This is a short yet comprehensive guide on how we should read research papers during our pediatric training and residency. You will find nothing more than "How to effectively read a research paper?"
Although we are not researchers or innovators yet and maybe some of the readers here will do that later but at least as a resident, we should have a fair idea about how we should read or approach any research-related papers.
This is of particular importance since the thesis and journal club is an integral part of the Pediatric residency curriculum. Additionally preparing theory questions and viva from landmark studies and quoting them in your answers might give you perks in outcomes.
Even though this post may sound boring, you need to read this, period ! I am sure this will also provide a fair insight of thesis for those who just begun their Pediatric residency
Before we dwell any further, let us first dissect the structure of a research paper. There will be some variations for sure but more or less it is built using the following blocks.
Building blocks of Research Paper
- Introduction and Background
- Material and Methodology
- Observations/ Results
- Conclusions +/- Suggestions
This is a summary of the entire paper, literally an extract of every useful thing, the paper has to offer.
Introduction and Background
This is why and where the question/idea or hypothesis comes from. In short, why did they do this research in the first place?
Material and Methodology
This is all about how the way, they performed the research. Why and how they collected particular data and how they processed it to arrive at the conclusion.
- How they choose the sample.
- Why they choose the sample.
- Whom they included, whom they did not and why.
- How they calculated and compared the observation etc.
This is the excerpt of the findings and the results obtained.
This is the author/author's way of looking at the results they obtained. What is their thought process for the original question/hypothesis of the study?
what the authors will do next or suggest to do based on the analysis they made. This also includes caution for you or the limitations of their work and analysis.
Most of the papers will be mapped like this. The thesis we do during residency has to follow a similar pattern and building blocks
Why am I reading this? - The first important question
Are you reading for just an overview?
If it is just for getting an overview of the topic probably just reading the abstract may suffice, however, you should be aware that you can not arrive at any conclusion just by reading a bunch of abstracts.
There are many papers that frankly admit that the conclussion arrived at in the study cannot be applied to a certain population or there are significant biases or what is lacking in the study.
This is placed generally in the analysis so you are missing the very fact that the study may or may not be applied to your scenario. Beware of reading just the overview.
For these reasons, abstract reading will never give you a full picture and can be dangerous if you are clinically using the paper or debating with your colleagues on a certain topic.
Rapid read over of a research paper
If you are just beginning with a particular paper, start with an Introduction. This will set the stage for you. It will act as an anchor for you throughout further reading.
It might even tell you, even more reason on why you should read that topic. You can now jump to conclusions for rapid reading.
In-depth reading, like a pro
Now that you have developed a taste, you are ready for the deep dive.
When you intend to read a research paper, you must ask the following questions
- why are they doing this study?
- how are they doing it?
- Are they doing it right?
- Why do others agree or disagree with them?
- Who is correct?
- what is my take-away?
This should automatically change your reading requirements. You have to now zoom in by following a 3 pass approach.
What is the Three Pass approach?
None of us would like to read a research paper from top to bottom, do we? This is exactly where the three-pass approach comes into the picture.
Instead of reading the paper from top to bottom, using this method, you can now decide what you must read and what you can skip. Each pass or step will help you achieve a goal you have set before reading the paper.
Each pass has a different goal and therefore the first question - why I am reading this? holds great value.
The first pass - Birds eye view
This is to get an overview of the topic and what is going on recently.
- Read the title, abstract, and introduction.
- Read the headings of section and sub-section, but ignore everything else.
- Read the conclusions
The second pass - Grasp the topic
This is to get a grasp over the paper’s content, but not its details.
The second pass focuses on figures, diagrams, graphs, and illustrations in the paper. The properly labeled and explained infographics separate a good, high-quality research paper from the rest of the junk.
Remember this applies to your thesis also.
Mark underline relevant information and references which you feel may be worth reading. You can use the highlighter as well.
The second pass allows you to summarize the contents with greater understanding and clarity.
The third pass - Pur yourself in researchers' shoe
Understand that this step is important if you are
- Reviewing certain topics or papers for discussion.
- Debating or Presenting in Journal club
The third pass is virtually experiencing the steps the authors have gone through!. It also involves challenging and creating - every 'if and but' question for the paper.
It's a bit time taking than the above two methods of reading but more rewarding. At the end of the third pass, you should be able to speak for or against the paper with reasoning.
Schema of reading a scientific paper for presenting a paper in a journal club.
- Start with the introduction, not the abstract.
- Understand what problem this paper is trying to solve, there may be multiple questions/aim in the paper. What is yours?
- Summarise the introduction is 3 o 5 sentences
- What the authors have done to answer your question, read the methodology and imagine important steps they have done, not all.
- Read results, use tables and diagrams, they are a quick summary of every result. you will need a bit of a touch of statistical knowledge here. The following post might help you with that
- https://explorable.com/statistics-tutorial on explorable
- Basics of Statistics
- Remember when they say significant and non-significant in the results section, its has exact statistical meaning.
- Read their conclusion. Ask yourself, whether the results/conclusion satisfies your primary question or not. Do you agree with them? Do you think anything was missed which you read somewhere else or known?
- Go back to the abstract now.
Undertaking a literature survey
This is how you read what others have to say on the same topic. Understanding how to take a literature survey is an important step when you are preparing a review of literature for the thesis.
Imagine this as your google search for a movie review from different sources. The topic in questions for which you are referring a paper needs further exploration with other research papers. But you cannot simply make a google search, can you?
How to perform a review of literature
- Prefer an academic search engine like google scholar or FOAM (free online access medicine search engine) search over a non-academic one.
- Do just the first pass reading ( as above) on 5 of them.
- These papers will have tables of findings compared in the result section. Pick these articles for further review.
- If not go to the references section, find similar papers. Mostly they will be arranged in year-wise chronology. Pick the recent ones for review.
So, those are a few very basic things I have learned while preparing for my journal clubs. If this helps you all the better!
- Ellen Moran -How to read a scientific paper efficiently
- How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists
- S. Keshav - How to Read a Paper (pdf)
- Subramanyam R. Art of reading a journal article: Methodically and effectively. J Oral Maxillofac Pathol. 2013;17(1):65-70. doi:10.4103/0973-029X.110733 (full article)
Ajay Agade | DNB(Pediatrics), FNB(Pediatric Intensive Care), Fellowship in Pediatric pulmonology and LTV
Ajay is a Paediatric Intensivist, currently working in Pediatric Pulmonology & LTV at Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS, London