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.

References

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