In this article I will share with you a few techniques for understanding how to read scientific papers quickly and effectively.

The vast majority of the scientific articles follow a structure that is known as IMRaD. That stand for Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. 

In addition a scientific article is “wrapped” by an abstract and a conclusion. 

Let’s see these parts one by one:

  • Abstract: Summarize the all article in 5-10 lines giving anticipation of the findings
  • Introduction: A clarification about the context of the paper and a summary of existing research relevant to the topic of interest.
  • Method: explains the set of techniques that the authors used for arriving at the findings in the paper
  • Results: the main course of the article and explain what the authors found following the method previously suggested.
  • Discussion: evaluate method and results from a bird eye view and try to generalize the findings addressing questions like: How much can I generalize findings? How these findings compare with results of other scientist? What are the practical implication?
  • Conclusion: summarize the entire paper with emphasis on what are the findings, the “take home” message and possible future actions.
How to read scientific papers quickly and effectively

Not all the scientific papers are exactly structured in this way but, content wise, they contain the mentioned information. Example of variation includes:

  • Dividing the introduction in 2 part: introduction and related work
  • Move the related work part just before the conclusion
  • Method and results are part of the same section.
  • Results and discussion are part of the same section.
  • Discussion and conclusions are part of the same section.

Nevertheless, the structure is quite similar and you should take advantage of this if you want to read scientific papers quickly and effectively.

What follows is a step by step filtering process that take advantage of the fact that scientific papers follow the IMRaD structure. If properly applied it can be used to speed up the way you read scientific papers.

Step 0: start by asking yourself the following question:

“Why am I reading this paper?” 

This is the number one thing for understanding how to read scientific papers quickly and effectively. I can’t stress this enough, if you want to read scientific papers quickly and effectively you my have a clear goal in mind. Possible answer includes:

  • Trying to build an extensive literature review
  • Looking for ideas around a particular topic
  • Looking for a methodology for testing a possible idea

You will direct your attention to the section(s) that better address what you are looking for by following this step by step process.

Step 1: Read Title, Keywords and Abstract:

Is the subject of your interest? Can you devise the research question that the authors are trying to answer? If you have a yes to both the questions, you may want to consider moving forward. If you can’t understand the research question by reading the abstract it may not be a good paper to ready anyway. More information in this article on how to assess the quality of a paper.

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Step 2: Grasp the Conceptual Framework and the Findings

Probably the conclusion contains this information. However, if you need more details, you may want to dig into the method and the results part of the paper. Ask yourself: “if I will read this paper will I advance my initial goal? Why?”. If the answer is positive you can move to the next step otherwise you can start analyzing the next candidate.

Step 3: Evaluate the type and quality of the research

Not all papers are equal. If you will dig further in the method and the results you should be able to form an opinion about the validity of their methods and the deepness of the approach. At the end of this phase you should be able to have: (i) a clear understanding of what this paper is about and (ii) an opinion regarding the quality of the work.

If your goal is building a literature review you do not need to read an understand the rest of the paper. That is the same in the case you are shopping for ideas. You already have a clear idea of what is the paper about and you will reading it in a deeper way when you will need. At the same time if the paper does not meet your quality criteria you can discard it.

Step 4: Keep Track of the Paper and What You Have Done

If you reach this step is because the paper is “good” and you believe is interesting for addressing your goals. Consequently, you may want to save the article in your repository. You want to print it for a full read as well. At the same time you want to write down 2-3 lines regarding what is the paper about and how benefit you. This may save you when you are suppose to read a lot of papers at the same time, as you will be able to track what each author is proposing minimizing the confusion.

Step 5: Read the Full Paper and Understand the Details

If this particular article checked all the box, is of your interest, help you achieve your goal and is of good quality. All the gatekeepers of the previous 4 steps are saying “is a go”. So, read it carefully and put attention at the details; maybe you can use their methodology for proving something that you are working on, maybe has an interesting idea that can be used in your domain of research. Please remember that “the devil is in the details”, so is time to do the some final checks and use it as needed.

This step by step method is how to read scientific papers quickly and effectively. The secret is that each step acts as a filter and will tell you if you should keep reading or is it time to move to a different article. This will save you time and will help you to keep track of what you are doing so that you will not get lost when the number of papers that you have to read increases.

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