How to Read (Science) Journal Articles


I remember one of the most daunting tasks I had as an undergrad researcher was reading science articles. I could just not sit down and read one, much less understand what they were trying to tell me! It’s like it went in one ear and out the other… or the sight-seeing equivalent I guess.

Well, eventually, after many, many, many journal articles after, I can actually read and (sort of) understand what they’re trying to tell me! Turns out I just needed to find own way of reading them. Since I’m a visual person, that meant colored pens or going through various annotating apps on my tablet…

So, in hopes this helps at least one researcher in the very beginnings of their career, I shall now present my own personal method of annotating and understanding journal articles!

1) Decide which medium to use. 


For the sake of saving trees, I tend to just read journal articles on my android tablet. I personally use the Xodo PDF Reader & Editor App, as I find it to be a little easier to highlight and add comments than Adobe Reader. However, if I find a paper that I feel is going to be key in whatever I’m doing/writing, then I usually print it out and grab a whole bunch of colorful pens!

For annotating a physical copy, because I hate hightlighers so much, I typically just grab either my Stabilo Fineliners or Muji Gel Ink Ballpoint Pens.  (I personally prefer Muji Pens since the colors seem brighter and the pen tip seems much sharper.)

I personally suggest starting out with reading and annotating physical copies (despite the poor trees D:), as it is much less distracting reading a physical paper than using a tablet with the temptation that is the internet. :p

2) Choose a color code

Annotating Legend

This is the general color code that I have for annotating journal articles. I will go on and explain what I mean by each one in a sec, but first I’d like to stress the importance of keeping this legend nearby! When reading on my tablet, I have this note saved on Google Keep, so I can quickly switch to it if I ever need to refresh my memory. When I annotate on paper, I usually quickly write my color code on the top of the first page.

Now onto the actual colors!

Blue: By background/general, I usually just mark anything that I feel is pertinent for me to remember. Is there a significant fact they mention that pretty much explains why they’re spending their funding doing this experiment? Is there something that you should note that is important in the field as a whole? Are there definitions you don’t know? Acronyms? All of these can be highlighted/marked in blue!

Green: Self explanatory. Here I tend to find things that answer “What?” What information are they going to present to you? What do they think they’re going to find? What are they investigating? What do they hope to achieve?

Red: So this color has two things associated with it. First, usually research is brought on by a knowledge gap in the field. What was unknown before these awesome scientists came along? However, research always brings about new questions, so under this same category I mark what questions arose or which are still unanswered. This gives an idea of what direction the research is headed, which is helpful when you’re trying to write about it or use it for your own research.

Purple: Another self explanatory color! What did they find? What are some of their key results. I’m not saying mark every little number or equation they came up with. Rather, find the bigger picture results that answer their main questions that (if your using my color scheme) are marked in green!

Orange: So, as I will explain shortly, I usually skip reading the methods section unless I need a particular paper to form an experiment or something. However, writers usually make reference to their methods throughout their paper. For instance, they might mention and instrument they use or a reason behind a certain procedure. These are good to know because it helps better understand their results.

3) Read the Paper!

So science papers seem daunting at first, but I like breaking it down into small sections that I can tackle one at a time.

First, read the abstract. It doesn’t have to be an in depth read. Rather, just see if you can find their main goals/hypothesis and key results. A lot of papers summarize the complete paper here, so by reading this you get an idea of what to expect when you read the rest.

Second, move on to the introduction. This is where my blue pen gets used a lot. Find key words, definitions and acronyms that will be used throughout the paper. Also, this is usually where writers will flush out their goals and explicitly state what they will be expecting from the experiment. In fact, don’t move on until you can mark their objectives and hypothesis, as this will be key in understanding the paper as a whole. This is also a good place to find those knowledge gaps they’re trying to fill. This is important to find if you’re trying to critically discuss a paper with a group or are reviewing it for a class/project.

Third, skip the methods. I always skip methods and only return to them later if I need to know something specific about their procedure or will be planning an similar experiment.

Fourth, to the results and discussions. There are two things you do here. 1) Find the key results that correspond to their main objectives, because you read this far and obviously want to know what happened! If you don’t find the results, it’s like reading a book and stopping a few pages before the climax! Also, 2) Go look at their figures when they mention them! The figures look scary, I know, but they’re there for a reason. It might also be good advice to mark whenever they reference a figure. If I’m really diving into a paper, I also like writing notes on the side of each figure that either explain or summarize what it’s showing. Again, this is great if you’re critically discussing a paper and for understanding why they came to the conclusions they did.

And lastly, conclusions. This is usually a summary of the whole paper, but it also mentions some questions that were not fully answered and need further research. This is also the place where their findings are usually summed up if you could not find them in the discussion.

4) Note the References

Sometimes papers make claims and then reference another paper. If these claims are something that are necessary to look into or something you need to explore further to understand, you should mark these and look them up in the references section. These papers may be important to read so you can get a better idea of the research presented.

And there you go! You read a whole paper! Congratulations. I will admit it does take a long time at the very beginning, but you’ll see with more practice you can read these papers much faster and with better understanding!

I certainly hope this helps any and all blooming scientists out there! 😀

Good luck!

❤ K


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