The Nuts and Bolts

In this section we will examine some of the basic skills you will need to master in order to be a successful researcher. These skills include the ability to perform bibliographic searches of the primary technical literature on your research topic, the ability to read and understand the articles that you find, the ability to correctly use new and unfamiliar methods and instruments, the ability to design experiments and to handle the data you obtain from those experiments.

Articles on Research

Reading the Primary Literature

You will soon discover that it is difficult to do quality research unless you regularly read and actively reflect on the current technical literature in your field. Reading technical articles is a bit different from reading textbooks or popular novels and requires a certain degree of knowledge and skill. In this section, we will offer some advice concerning how to go about mastering this essential skill.

There are Many Technical Journals

There are currently more than 40,000 journals (E. Garfield, 1996). These journals are published either by professional associations such as the American Chemical Society, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, American Association for the Advancement of Science, etc. For the last several years, the number of these journals has been growing at a nearly exponential rate (E. Garfield, 1996). This may make it seem as if reading and keeping pace with even the new research appearing in the current peer reviewed technical literature is a daunting, monumental task. Fortunately, it is well known that the bulk of the truly meaningful work appears to be concentrated in a relatively small subset of these journals. In fact, a mere 2,000 journals appear to account for 85% of the published articles and 95% of those papers that are cited by their peers in their published articles (E. Garfield, 1996). It is also useful to point out that the identity and relative ranking of these journals doesn't appear to vary much over time; a top ranked journal today is likely to be a top-ranked journal tomorrow. So, as you get going you will find that the bulk of the relevant literature in your field is likely confined to a finite and very manageable set of journals - likely fewer than ten in any one discipline.

Suggestions on How to Read a Technical Journal Article

Below you will find some specific suggestions regarding how to read a technical journal article:

Recognize That They Use a Standard Format.

This is useful information because once you become familiar with the standard format, it is easy to decide where you need to look in an article to find the specific information you need. The majority of the peer-reviewed literature is published in the form of communications or full papers. You will find detailed information concerning the specific format for both of these types of papers in the relevant linked sections.

Each section of a technical journal article contains different information. If you understand what information each section provides, it becomes much easier to find the information you need. A summary of the content of each section follows:

  • Abstracts Abstract the Article

    The purpose of the abstract is to provide the reader with a succinct summary of the article. Thus, the abstract should provide information about the specific research problem being investigated, the methods used, the results obtained, and what the results of the study mean in the larger context of the research study and in some cases the field of study. This means that the abstract is a good place to look first if you are trying to decided whether or not the paper is relevant to your work.

  • Titles Provide an Overview

    Paper titles are usually succinct, stand-alone overviews of a paper's contents. Authors usually make an effort to include keywords that abstracting services like CAS, ISI, etc. could use in indexing the article. So, if you are new to a field and/or subject, it is useful to take note of the words used in the title as they may provide you with useful keywords to use in any literature searches you may perform.

  • Introductions Introduce the Paper

    The introduction section generally provides an overview of the research problem being studied - why it is a worthy problem, what work has already been done by others to solve it, and what the authors may have already done in this area. Introductions are a good place to go if you are new to the subject. Key concepts should be defined and relevant references to key articles in the field cited. These citations in turn will provide you with information on who works in this field.

  • Experimental Section Details the Research Methodology

    The experimental section will provide detailed information on how the authors accomplished the experiments described in their paper. Such information typically includes sources for all reagents and/or materials used, names and models of all instrumentation used, methods for synthesizing any reagents, and provide quantitative information on the characterization of any new materials synthesized.

  • Results and Discussion

    Some articles will distinguish between "Results" and "Discussion" while others will combine this information into one section "Results and Discussion." In papers that contain two distinct sections ("Results" and "Discussion"), the data obtained from the study are introduced in the "Results" section and their interpretation is delayed until the "Discussion" section. In papers that contain one section ("Results and Discussion"), results are introduced and interpreted experiment-by-experiment.

Be Smart about How You Read

Expect to spend some time in order to really understand any technical article that you read. Skim the article through the first time and focus on trying to grasp the "big picture." What is it that the authors were trying to do? How did they do it? What did they learn? Once you see the big picture, it will easier to focus on adding depth to your understanding by trying to understand the details of the study.

Read actively

Take notes - using your own words - while you read. If you don't understand something, note that and make a point of asking your advisor, other group members, and/or other faculty about your question as soon as possible thereafter. To avoid potential problems (plagiarism), be careful not to copy down any phrases and/or sentences as later you may not remember that these words weren't your own.

Discuss what you read with others

You will get much more out of your reading if you discuss what you read with other interested individuals. Below you will find some advice concerning methods you can use to stimulate discussion in your laboratory and/or department.

Practice Makes Perfect!

The more you read the easier it will get - you will gain familiarity with the format and process of reading, the terminology used in your field of study, etc.

Remember that Papers are "Works in Progress"

Unlike textbooks that generally discuss subject matter that is well accepted in your discipline, technical papers describe work that pushes the forefronts of science. As such they describe work in progress. The design of the studies, instrumentation used, quality of the results obtained and the validity of the interpretation of those results are being presented for discussion and/or acceptance by the greater scientific community. As a member of this community, you are encouraged - even obliged - to question and/or challenge their accuracy/validity. One last comment: If you have difficulty reading an article, it may be that the article is not well written.


  • E. Garfield. (1996) The Scientist. September 2, p. 13. "The Significant Scientific Literature Appears in a Small Core of Journals." Avail. URL:
  • E. Garfield. (1998) The Scientist. February 2, p. 11. "Long-Term vs. Short-Term Journal Impact: Does it Matter." Avail. URL:
  • H. Beall; J. Trimbur. (2001) "A Short Guide to Writing About Chemistry."
    New York: Longman.

Searching the Technical Literature

One of the first things you will learn as you begin to do research is the importance of spending quality time researching and reading the relevant research in your field. You will also quickly learn that the bulk of the information you need is published in the form of technical articles rather than textbooks.

In this section we will discuss some useful strategies for identifying the essential or "core" literature in your field that is relevant to your research project:

Online Resources

There are a number of useful on-line resources that will help you identify the core literature in your field. A number of these tools are useful across disciplines but some are discipline specific. A list of some of the most common tools is shown below:

  • American Chemical Society's SciFinder Scholar
  • Thomson's Web of Science
  • Pub Med Central
  • Elsevier's Science Direct
  • Thomson's Science Citation Index
  • Thomson's BIOSIS

For information on access to these resources and directions on how to get started using these tools, consult your college or university's science librarian and/or the library's website. As these products are quite expensive, depending on your institution's library budget for electronic resources, it may or may not have all of the resources identified above. Because of the cost many institutions are now partnering with other area institutions to form local library consortia. So, you are strongly encouraged to consult with your science librarian if your library doesn't provide one of the aforementioned resources as they may be able to direct you to another library located nearby where you can access these tools for your literature search.

Library Based Resources

While the resources available on the internet may make it seem as if everything of value can be found there, it is important to point out that you will miss a lot of valuable resources and work if you limit yourself to internet resources alone. You may find it extremely useful to visit the stacks in your library which hold books related to your project topic. As books are organized by topic in the library, you may find some useful resources simply by browsing the stacks that you wouldn't have located in any other way.

Some Important questions to consider as you begin your research project:

  • Who are the researchers that are publishing the bulk of the work in the field?
  • What journals should I be reading regularly if I want to stay current in my project and my field?
  • Is my project of current interest to researchers in the field?

General Search Guidelines

  • Begin by searching each word, phrase, and/or name separately. This will give you some idea of how much information is already known relevant to your project. Note that most electronic databases will search for an exact match to the words. If you search for an exact match you may miss some useful references. So consider using truncation (*) and/or wildcards (? or !) as appropriate. Truncation is a useful way to search for any terms that include a common root word. Wildcards are valuable whenever there are more than one correct spelling of a word.
  • If you find a large number of references, you will find it helpful to make your search specific. The easiest way to do this is by combining topics/concepts in your search using the appropriate Boolean logic gates such as:
    • And - will allow you to identify only those resources that contain both of the terms you use in your search
    • Or - will allow you to identify resources containing either of the words used in the search term
    • Not - will allow you to identify resources that don't contain the term following "not" in the search

    Note that you can use several logic gates when performing a search if there are three or more search terms you wish to use.

  • Once you obtain a set of references, there are several things you should do with the information:
    • Look over your reference list to see what different kinds of information are available to you. Most databases contain bibliographic information for the following types of information:
      • Dissertations
      • (Edited) books
      • Meeting abstracts
      • Patents
      • Review Papers
      • Technical articles including technical notes, communications, and full papers
    • Assess the quality of the sources you find. Not all of the above information has been evaluated for accuracy. The most common form of assessment is peer-review in which one or more scientists and/or engineers, working in the same field on similar research problems, provides an anonymous evaluation of their colleague's work. It is also useful to point out that there are different levels of peer review. Manuscripts published in technical journals are typically subjected to the highest level of scrutiny by the scientific community. Admittedly it will be somewhat difficult to evaluate the quality of your sources at the start of your project. However, you can begin to gauge which sources to trust by consulting your advisor and other faculty and advanced students (graduate and post doctoral). Although somewhat controversial, librarians and information specialists have been studying trends in the literature for nearly a century. Based on the frequency with which papers published in various journals are cited, these experts have developed a quantitative measure called the impact factor to reflect the impact of these journals.
    • Assess the quantity of the information you have obtained. How many references did you find? If you found only a few references this could mean that little work has been done and/or published in your area or it might mean that your search was too narrowly defined. If you found hundreds of references this may mean that a lot of work has been done and/or published on your topic or it may mean that your search was too broad.
    • Learn from your search results as a method of informing and refining your search. Many bibliographic database programs include tools that will allow you to examine and/or refine your search results according to:
      • date of publications
      • author name
      • journal name
      • language of publication

      Use of these tools with your reference list will allow you to identify who the key researchers are in your field, the names of the journals in which work relevant to your research project is most likely to be published, whether or not the research project is of current interest or not, etc. It is also a good idea to examine the words used in the titles of the materials you find. This may help you identify new and/or different words to use in your literature search so that you find all of the information that is relevant to your project.

  • Don't forget to save your search results and to document your search strategies in your notebook. You may find it useful to save your results in a format compatible with whatever bibliographic referencing program, such as Endnote® that your laboratory, college and/or university uses. If you aren't familiar with these programs, they are extremely useful for tracking and properly formatting references in technical papers, grant applications, and dissertations.
  • Obtain (on-line or at your local library) several of the papers you have found in your literature search. Read the introduction section in these papers as this section usually provides background information on the particular research problem that the researchers studied, the methods and materials used, etc. Look up any relevant papers cited there and read the introduction to those papers, too. You will soon find that you are able to identify a "core" literature relevant to your specific research project in this way.
  • Be sure to use several different bibliographic search engines and several different strategies in your literature search. No single database indexes all articles published in all journals. It is important to know what the breadth of the database, i.e., what kinds of information it contains, what time frame is covered, and the frequency with which the database is updated.
  • Periodically throughout your project, perform a new literature search. It is important to realize that the literature isn't static. This means that it is critical to periodically re-visit the literature for new citations relevant to your research project. Some databases such as BIOSIS and Medline offer customized e-mail alerting services that can be very useful in staying current with one's field. Some of the services that may be provided include notification when a new issue of a technical journal or when an article published on a particular topic is published.


Mastering New Instrumentation

Today it seems like no matter what kind of research project you are involved in you will likely use one or more different instruments. The goal of this section is provide you with some suggestions regarding how you can as quickly and painlessly as possible learn to make meaningful measurements using new and unfamiliar instrumentation.

1. Familiarize yourself with the basic principles behind how the instrument works.
If you understand how the instrument works, it is often much easier to learn to operate it. Useful resources you may wish to consult in learning about the instrument you will use include textbooks, monographs, technical articles, and the world-wide-web. For example, many instrument manufacturers provide extensive background information on their products on-line and some even provide training materials gratis upon request.

2. Locate and read the manufacturer's instrument manual
If instrument manual not readily available in your laboratory or facility, locate the telephone number for the instrument manufacturer (look on the internet) and see if they can provide you with a replacement copy. If you cannot locate a copy of the original manual, it may be possible to find a set of directions for your instrument that has been written and posted on the internet. Though it might be tempting to use this strategy, remember that any information you find on the internet may be incomplete and/or inaccurate so approach the use of this kind of information with due caution.

3. If an instrument manual is not available, consider writing your own set of directions once you have mastered the use of the instrument.
These are referred to as standard operating protocols (SOP) in industry. View the preparation of an SOP as a useful opportunity for you to practice your communications skills, hone your understanding of how to use the instrument, and as a mechanism for giving something back to your professor and/or research laboratory.

4. Run a standard sample on the instrument.
In learning to use a new instrument, it is wise to first gain self-confidence and demonstrate competency by running a standard sample. Most instruments when they are first sold come with a standard sample. A standard sample is a material that is stable, of known/reliable composition, and one for which the quantitative goodness of the measurements afforded by that particular instrument are well established and also likely easily obtained.

Experimental Design Considerations

  • Quality data only result from thoughtfully designed experiments. So, take your time, think through each experiment in advance of beginning your work in the laboratory, and discuss your plans with others including your advisor.
  • When designing experiments identify all of the potential variables in the system, control them, and vary only one variable at a time.
  • Look for and eliminate all possible sources of error.
  • Use the highest quality experimental methods, reagents, and instrumentation available. Purify your reagents if you know that they are impure. Collaborate if necessary in order to obtain access to instrumentation and methods that are of the highest quality. Make sure that your methods and instruments will produce data with the required degree of accuracy and precision.
  • Establish good sampling methodology. This means determine what size sample must be analyzed in order for the results to be statistically meaningful for your research problem. Replicate analysis should always be performed on a series of independently prepared samples. Too often in the classroom, laboratory experiments emphasize the analysis of three replicate samples. Students may walk away with the mistaken impression that three is the magic number that should be used in all experiments. Analysis of three samples, however, is justified as useful pedagogically in that it provides students with the opportunity to execute the experiment several times and therefore develop their lab technique in what is admittedly a very finite block of time. The reality is that rarely is three samples an adequate number of samples that will produce statistically significant results in an experiment.
  • Always carry out any necessary control experiments.
  • Record all data in a permanent laboratory notebook. If the data are obtained using a computer-interfaced instrument, a minimum of two copies of the data should be preserved.

Handling Experimental Data

We have an ethical obligation to check our data and make sure that they are accurate before publishing them in the literature. This doesn’t mean that we must be 100% certain before we communicate our findings but it does mean that we should have carefully eliminated all sources of error, ruled out any other reasonable hypotheses first.

All data – even negative results - must be reported. Data should never be “edited” so that they fit our hypotheses, no matter how confident we may be about the validity of our hypotheses. A suspect data point (note: not data points) should only be removed if you can legitimately meet the statistical requirements for an outlier. Report the results of all of your experiments to your advisor no matter how attractive or unattractive you feel the results may be.

Approach your work with a healthy sense of skepticism. Be critical of your results and of your interpretation. Be careful not to jump too quickly to conclusions. That is investigator bias. A good way to make sure that you aren’t wearing blinders is to present your data to your advisor and/or other member’s of your research group. If they don’t see what you see in the data, it may be that the trend you see in the data really isn’t there.

When using a new, unfamiliar method of data analysis always exercise due caution. This is particularly important today as we have access on our computer desktops to some very sophisticated methods of data analysis. Sometimes, it is simply too easy to use these programs without fully understanding the underlying methods, their assumptions, and limitations. Don’t use methods that you don’t understand and cannot defend. Don’t use something simply because your advisor tells you to either. Ignorance is not a valid excuse for misusing statistical methods of data analysis. Ask your advisor and/or consult a statistician if you don’t understand what you are doing, learn the background on the method, and then you will be able to apply it with confidence and skill to the analysis of your data.