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BIOL 201: Biology Inquiry & Observation: Reading Scientific Articles

Parts of an Article

Understanding how scholarly articles are structured can help with reading comprehension and efficiency. Most scholarly articles contain the same IMRD (introduction, methods, results, discussion) sections and include an abstract and conclusion. The order and names of these sections may differ, but their contents will be relatively consistent amongst all articles.


Abstract: The abstract is a concise summary of the article. It usually highlights the study’s contributions to the field and any important results and conclusions.


Introduction: In this section, the authors introduce the study’s topic, justify its importance, and provide a review of relevant existing literature.  Typically, this section  concludes with the authors' research questions or hypotheses.


Methods: The methods section is usually the most technically dense section. Here, the authors provide a detailed description of how the study was conducted.


Results: In the results section, the authors present the study's data through tables, figures, and text. In some articles, this section may also include analysis.


Discussion: In the discussion, the authors analyze their data and explain whether it supports their research questions or hypotheses. The authors draw on other studies to compare results and to ground the study in the existing literature. The discussion may also include study limitations and directions for future research.


Conclusion: In the final section, authors emphasize the most important findings and share any concluding thoughts.

Reading Strategies

Reading and understanding scientific articles can be challenging at first. These articles are written by scholars for other scholars in the same field, using technical language and assuming a certain level of understanding from their readers. Scientific articles also require you to read in ways that may be unfamiliar. Unlike popular novels and textbook chapters, scientific articles can be read out of order and may require several re-readings for comprehension.

This guide provides one approach to understanding articles, but feel free to explore other methods that may work better for you.


1. Begin by reading the Title and Abstract: These sections will give you an overview of the article’s content. If you're reading articles for your research, the title and abstract will help you decide if the paper is relevant to your needs. If the paper is irrelevant, stop reading and find something else!


2. Skim the entire article: Paying attention to headings and figures, skim the entire article.This will give you a general idea of what the article is about before you dive into a more careful reading. After skimming, take a moment to connect the paper’s content and your prior knowledge.


3. Highlight and take notes: Starting with the introduction, read through the article. Highlight important information and make notes in the margins. Pay extra attention to tables and figures, as they often present important data and results concisely.  After you finish a section, try to summarize it in your own words to check your comprehension.


4. Look up unfamiliar words and concepts: Don't worry if you don't understand everything in the article, especially if the topic is new to you. Use textbooks, dictionaries, online videos, articles from the reference section, and other resources to help you understand unfamiliar concepts. You may have to use several additional resources to understand just one scientific article! Make notes about what you learn for later reference.


5. Repeat the process: Reading scientific papers is an iterative process. You will probably read a little bit, have to look things up, read some more, and have to look up more things. When you first start reading scientific articles, this cycle can take some time, so be patient and give yourself enough time to thoroughly grasp the content.


6. Reread and reflect: Read through the article once more to assess your understanding. You may discover additional concepts to look up or make new connections between the article and your prior knowledge. Take a moment to think about what you read. Do you agree with the authors' conclusions? Did you notice any biases? Were the research questions or hypotheses fully addressed? Critical reflection can enhance your comprehension.


Remember, this process may take time initially. As you become more comfortable with reading scientific articles and gain more knowledge in your field, you'll find that you can skim or skip sections, and there will be fewer unfamiliar concepts to look up. But if you're just starting, allow yourself plenty of time to delve into the new information. With practice, you'll improve your reading skills and navigate scientific articles with ease.