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Exercise #2: How to Read a Scientific Paper

Learning Objectives


This exercise familiarizes students with using primary sources in research. You will learn about the difference between primary and secondary sources, and why reading primary sources is important. You will learn about the organization and layout of a scientific article. You will learn how to read an article critically and how to summarize the main points of an article. This exercise is specifically aimed at reading a primary article on a GCM. You are asked to read Jeong et al. (2011) and answer questions about each section of the article. You are asked to summarize the main points of the article and praise and criticize several points of the article.


Jeong, Su-Jong, et al. Impact of vegetation feedback on the temperature and its diurnal range over the Northern Hemisphere during summer in a 2 X CO2 climate. Clim Dyn (2011)


This exercise will focus on reading an article about a GCM. Remember, what you learn from this exercise about how to read a scientific research article can be applied to any research article.

Why should you read scientific research articles?
As a college student, you are expected not only to learn what knowledge has been established by those who went before you, but also to critique that knowledge, form opinions on it, and find gaps in it that need to be filled in (by bright new minds like you). Learning how to effectively read a scientific research article will help you do that.

Reading a scientific research article is different than reading a textbook. Textbooks distill information from the scientific literature and present it in a summary. A scientific research article is a primary source; it provides original information on how data was gathered analyzed in order to reach a conclusion about what knowledge can be gained from the study. A textbook is a secondary source. It provides an interpretation of the original material and usually includes commentary on the strengths or weaknesses of the primary source. When reading a scientific research article, it will be up to you, the reader, to interpret the information presented, and to determine its strengths and weaknesses.

It might seem like reading a textbook is an easier way to learn about new ideas because there is less work for you to do. The author of the textbook has read the primary source, distilled the main points, and provided a commentary on the information for you. But reading the primary source for yourself is essential to furthering your education. As a college student you are being trained to think critically. Critical thinking refers to higher order thinking, and questioning assumptions. Thinking critically entails evaluating information and making decisions about the merits or detriments of that information. When you read a text book, the author of the book has done the critical thinking for you, and you are learning about the author’s conclusions and interpretations. When you read a scientific research article, you can see the original information and evaluate it yourself. This will allow you to understand the information on a much deeper level, and will help you form your own opinion about the world around you.

How is a scientific research article formatted?
Most articles follow a standard format. Understanding that format can help you focus in on the information you are searching for, and can help you understand what you are reading.

Title: A short, succinct and all-encompassing statement of what the paper is about.

Abstract: A summary of the paper, highlighting key points from the methods, results and discussion. The abstract begins with a statement of why the research was done and why the results are significant. Abstracts can be dense and difficult to read because the entire paper must be summarized clearly in only about 200 words. Never cite an article after having read only the abstract! The authors’ interpretation of the research presented in the abstract may not be the same as yours after reading the full paper.

Introduction: Familiarizes the reader with past work that was done, why it was important and what gaps in knowledge it left. Explains what the author did and why it is important.

Materials and Methods: How the author did the research. (note: this section may go by many names. “Methods” is most common but in the paper we are using this section is called “Model and Experiment”).

Results: Details what the data showed. Does not include any commentary on what the results mean. This is the what of the paper.

Discussion and Conclusions: This is the section in which the author describes what they think the data means. The author explains why the data show what they show, and how this relates to the objectives of the study. This is the why of the paper.

How should you read a scientific research article?
When reading a text book, you usually start at the beginning and read until the end. But the worst way to read a research paper is to read it word for word, title to literature cited, as if it were a textbook. Before you begin reading an article, you should have an idea of what you want to get out of it. Start by asking yourself some questions:
1) Why am I reading this article?
2) What information do I hope to gain from it?
3) What do I already know about this subject?
4) Where are my gaps in knowledge about this subject?
5) What topics within this subject do I need to expand my knowledge about?
6) Are there controversial points about this subject, and do I need to find corroboration or refutation for them?

For this exercise you will be reading the article entitled, Impact of vegetation feedback on the temperature and its diurnal range over the Northern Hemisphere during summer in a 2 X CO2 climate. This exercise will lead you through each section of the paper and help you discover what kind of information is in each of these sections.

Keep in mind that you probably will not understand everything in this paper. Scientific papers are written by scientists, for other scientists in their field. The author is writing with the expectation that the reader has a strong background in the topic. In this case, you are not a researcher working with climate models, so you should not expect to understand everything in this paper. Nonetheless, as an educated student, you can filter through the paper and pull out the most important information.
1) Title: You need to understand all the key words in the title. If you can’t find them in the paper, search other resources for a definition.

2) Authors: 3) Abstract: 4) Introduction: 5) Model and Experiments (this section is equivalent to Methods in other research papers): 6) Results: 7) Discussion: 8) Conclusions: 9) Paraphrase the significance of this paper with 3 or 4 sentences free of technical jargon.
10) Praise and criticize several points of the paper.

Technological Note: If you are interested in keeping an electronic library of scientific papers you have read or are interested in reading, you can visit Mendeley.com to download a free PDF organizer. With this program you can highlight articles and make typed notes that are attached to the PDF. As you continue in your educational career, keeping track of previous research and papers read can save you time and help you to build on previous knowledge for future research.