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Writing a Scientific Paper: RESULTS
- Writing a lab report
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Writing a "good" results section
This is the core of the paper. Don't start the results sections with methods you left out of the Materials and Methods section. You need to give an overall description of the experiments and present the data you found.
Goals: • Factual statements supported by evidence. Short and sweet without excess words • Present representative data rather than endlessly repetitive data • Discuss variables only if they had an effect (positive or negative) • Use meaningful statistics • Avoid redundancy. If it is in the tables or captions you may not need to repeat it
Figures and Captions in Lab Reports
A short article by Dr. Brett Couch and Dr. Deena Wassenberg, Biology Program, University of Minnesota
"Results Checklist" from: How to Write a Good Scientific Paper. Chris A. Mack. SPIE. 2018.
Present the results of the paper, in logical order, using tables and graphs as necessary.
Explain the results and show how they help to answer the research questions posed in the Introduction. Evidence does not explain itself; the results must be presented and then explained.
Avoid: presenting results that are never discussed; presenting results in chronological order rather than logical order; ignoring results that do not support the conclusions;
Additional Tips for Results Sections
- Number tables and figures separately beginning with 1 (i.e. Table 1, Table 2, Figure 1, etc.).
- Do not attempt to evaluate the results in this section. Report only what you found; hold all discussion of the significance of the results for the Discussion section.
- It is not necessary to describe every step of your statistical analyses. Scientists understand all about null hypotheses, rejection rules, and so forth and do not need to be reminded of them. Just say something like, "Honeybees did not use the flowers in proportion to their availability (X2 = 7.9, p<0.05, d.f.= 4, chi-square test)." Likewise, cite tables and figures without describing in detail how the data were manipulated. Explanations of this sort should appear in a legend or caption written on the same page as the figure or table.
- You must refer in the text to each figure or table you include in your paper.
- Tables generally should report summary-level data, such as means ± standard deviations, rather than all your raw data. A long list of all your individual observations will mean much less than a few concise, easy-to-read tables or figures that bring out the main findings of your study.
- Only use a figure (graph) when the data lend themselves to a good visual representation. Avoid using figures that show too many variables or trends at once, because they can be hard to understand.
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Reporting Research Results in APA Style | Tips & Examples
Published on December 21, 2020 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on July 9, 2022.
The results section of a quantitative research paper is where you summarize your data and report the findings of any relevant statistical analyses.
The APA manual provides rigorous guidelines for what to report in quantitative research papers in the fields of psychology, education, and other social sciences.
Use these standards to answer your research questions and report your data analyses in a complete and transparent way.
Table of contents
What goes in your results section, introduce your data, summarize your data, report statistical results, presenting numbers effectively, what doesn’t belong in your results section, frequently asked questions about results in apa.
In APA style, the results section includes preliminary information about the participants and data, descriptive and inferential statistics, and the results of any exploratory analyses.
Include these in your results section:
- Participant flow and recruitment period. Report the number of participants at every stage of the study, as well as the dates when recruitment took place.
- Missing data . Identify the proportion of data that wasn’t included in your final analysis and state the reasons.
- Any adverse events. Make sure to report any unexpected events or side effects (for clinical studies).
- Descriptive statistics . Summarize the primary and secondary outcomes of the study.
- Inferential statistics , including confidence intervals and effect sizes. Address the primary and secondary research questions by reporting the detailed results of your main analyses.
- Results of subgroup or exploratory analyses, if applicable. Place detailed results in supplementary materials.
Write up the results in the past tense because you’re describing the outcomes of a completed research study.
Before diving into your research findings, first describe the flow of participants at every stage of your study and whether any data were excluded from the final analysis.
Participant flow and recruitment period
It’s necessary to report any attrition, which is the decline in participants at every sequential stage of a study. That’s because an uneven number of participants across groups sometimes threatens internal validity and makes it difficult to compare groups. Be sure to also state all reasons for attrition.
If your study has multiple stages (e.g., pre-test, intervention, and post-test) and groups (e.g., experimental and control groups), a flow chart is the best way to report the number of participants in each group per stage and reasons for attrition.
Also report the dates for when you recruited participants or performed follow-up sessions.
Another key issue is the completeness of your dataset. It’s necessary to report both the amount and reasons for data that was missing or excluded.
Data can become unusable due to equipment malfunctions, improper storage, unexpected events, participant ineligibility, and so on. For each case, state the reason why the data were unusable.
Some data points may be removed from the final analysis because they are outliers—but you must be able to justify how you decided what to exclude.
If you applied any techniques for overcoming or compensating for lost data, report those as well.
For clinical studies, report all events with serious consequences or any side effects that occured.
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Descriptive statistics summarize your data for the reader. Present descriptive statistics for each primary, secondary, and subgroup analysis.
Don’t provide formulas or citations for commonly used statistics (e.g., standard deviation) – but do provide them for new or rare equations.
The exact descriptive statistics that you report depends on the types of data in your study. Categorical variables can be reported using proportions, while quantitative data can be reported using means and standard deviations . For a large set of numbers, a table is the most effective presentation format.
Include sample sizes (overall and for each group) as well as appropriate measures of central tendency and variability for the outcomes in your results section. For every point estimate , add a clearly labelled measure of variability as well.
Be sure to note how you combined data to come up with variables of interest. For every variable of interest, explain how you operationalized it.
According to APA journal standards, it’s necessary to report all relevant hypothesis tests performed, estimates of effect sizes, and confidence intervals.
When reporting statistical results, you should first address primary research questions before moving onto secondary research questions and any exploratory or subgroup analyses.
Present the results of tests in the order that you performed them—report the outcomes of main tests before post-hoc tests, for example. Don’t leave out any relevant results, even if they don’t support your hypothesis.
For each statistical test performed, first restate the hypothesis , then state whether your hypothesis was supported and provide the outcomes that led you to that conclusion.
Report the following for each hypothesis test:
- the test statistic value,
- the degrees of freedom ,
- the exact p- value (unless it is less than 0.001),
- the magnitude and direction of the effect.
When reporting complex data analyses, such as factor analysis or multivariate analysis, present the models estimated in detail, and state the statistical software used. Make sure to report any violations of statistical assumptions or problems with estimation.
Effect sizes and confidence intervals
For each hypothesis test performed, you should present confidence intervals and estimates of effect sizes .
Confidence intervals are useful for showing the variability around point estimates. They should be included whenever you report population parameter estimates.
Effect sizes indicate how impactful the outcomes of a study are. But since they are estimates, it’s recommended that you also provide confidence intervals of effect sizes.
Subgroup or exploratory analyses
Briefly report the results of any other planned or exploratory analyses you performed. These may include subgroup analyses as well.
Subgroup analyses come with a high chance of false positive results, because performing a large number of comparison or correlation tests increases the chances of finding significant results.
If you find significant results in these analyses, make sure to appropriately report them as exploratory (rather than confirmatory) results to avoid overstating their importance.
While these analyses can be reported in less detail in the main text, you can provide the full analyses in supplementary materials.
To effectively present numbers, use a mix of text, tables , and figures where appropriate:
- To present three or fewer numbers, try a sentence ,
- To present between 4 and 20 numbers, try a table ,
- To present more than 20 numbers, try a figure .
Since these are general guidelines, use your own judgment and feedback from others for effective presentation of numbers.
Tables and figures should be numbered and have titles, along with relevant notes. Make sure to present data only once throughout the paper and refer to any tables and figures in the text.
Formatting statistics and numbers
It’s important to follow capitalization , italicization, and abbreviation rules when referring to statistics in your paper. There are specific format guidelines for reporting statistics in APA , as well as general rules about writing numbers .
If you are unsure of how to present specific symbols, look up the detailed APA guidelines or other papers in your field.
It’s important to provide a complete picture of your data analyses and outcomes in a concise way. For that reason, raw data and any interpretations of your results are not included in the results section.
It’s rarely appropriate to include raw data in your results section. Instead, you should always save the raw data securely and make them available and accessible to any other researchers who request them.
Making scientific research available to others is a key part of academic integrity and open science.
Interpretation or discussion of results
This belongs in your discussion section. Your results section is where you objectively report all relevant findings and leave them open for interpretation by readers.
While you should state whether the findings of statistical tests lend support to your hypotheses, refrain from forming conclusions to your research questions in the results section.
Explanation of how statistics tests work
For the sake of concise writing, you can safely assume that readers of your paper have professional knowledge of how statistical inferences work.
In an APA results section , you should generally report the following:
- Participant flow and recruitment period.
- Missing data and any adverse events.
- Descriptive statistics about your samples.
- Inferential statistics , including confidence intervals and effect sizes.
- Results of any subgroup or exploratory analyses, if applicable.
According to the APA guidelines, you should report enough detail on inferential statistics so that your readers understand your analyses.
- the test statistic value
- the degrees of freedom
- the exact p value (unless it is less than 0.001)
- the magnitude and direction of the effect
You should also present confidence intervals and estimates of effect sizes where relevant.
In APA style, statistics can be presented in the main text or as tables or figures . To decide how to present numbers, you can follow APA guidelines:
- To present three or fewer numbers, try a sentence,
- To present between 4 and 20 numbers, try a table,
- To present more than 20 numbers, try a figure.
Results are usually written in the past tense , because they are describing the outcome of completed actions.
The results chapter or section simply and objectively reports what you found, without speculating on why you found these results. The discussion interprets the meaning of the results, puts them in context, and explains why they matter.
In qualitative research , results and discussion are sometimes combined. But in quantitative research , it’s considered important to separate the objective results from your interpretation of them.
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How to Write the Results Section of a Research Paper
Table of Contents
Laura Moro-Martin, freelance scientific writer on Kolabtree, provides expert tips on how to write the results section of a research paper.
You have prepared a detailed −but concise− Methods section . Now it is time to write the Results of your research article. This part of the paper reports the findings of the experiments that you conducted to answer the research question(s). The Results can be considered the nucleus of a scientific article because they justify your claims, so you need to ensure that they are clear and understandable. You are telling a story −of course, a scientific story− and you want the readers to picture that same story in their minds. Let’s see how to avoid that your message ends up as in the ‘telephone game’.
The Results section: goals and structure
Depending on the discipline, journal, and the nature of the study, the structure of the article can differ. We will focus on articles were the Results and Discussion appear in two separate sections, but it is possible in some cases to combine them.
In the Results section, you provide an overall description of the experiments and present the data that you obtained in a logical order, using tables and graphs as necessary. The Results section should simply state your findings without bias or interpretation. For example, in your analysis, you may have noticed a significant correlation between two variables never described before. It is correct to explain this in the Results section. However, speculation about the reasons for this correlation should go in the Discussion section of your paper.
In general, the Results section includes the following elements:
- A very short introductory context that repeats the research question and helps to understand your results.
- Report on data collection, recruitment, and/or participants. For example, in the case of clinical research, it is common to include a first table summarizing the demographic, clinical, and other relevant characteristics of the study participants.
- A systematic description of the main findings in a logical order (generally following the order of the Methods section), highlighting the most relevant results.
- Other important secondary findings, such as secondary outcomes or subgroup analyses (remember that you do not need to mention any single result).
- Visual elements, such as, figures, charts, maps, tables, etc. that summarize and illustrate the findings. These elements should be cited in the text and numbered in order. Figures and tables should be able to stand on its own without the text, which means that the legend should include enough information to understand the non-textual element.
How to write the Results section of a research paper: Tips
The first tip −applicable to other sections of the paper too− is to check and apply the requirements of the journal to which you are submitting your work.
In the Results section, you need to write concisely and objectively, leaving interpretation for the Discussion section. As always, ‘learning from others’ can help you. Select a few papers from your field, including some published in your target journal, which you consider ‘good quality’ and well written. Read them carefully and observe how the Results section is structured, the type and amount of information provided, and how the findings are exposed in a logical order. Keep an eye on visual elements, such as figures, tables, and supplementary materials. Understand what works well in those papers to effectively convey their findings, and apply it to your writing.
Your Results section needs to describe the sequence of what you did and found, the frequency of occurrence of a particular event or result, the quantities of your observations, and the causality (i.e. the relationships or connections) between the events that you observed.
To organize the results, you can try to provide them alongside the research questions. In practice, this means that you will organize this section based on the sequence of tables and figures summarizing the results of your statistical analysis. In this way, it will be easier for readers to look at and understand your findings. You need to report your statistical findings, without describing every step of your statistical analysis. Tables and figures generally report summary-level data (for example, means and standard deviations), rather than all the raw data.
Following, you can prepare the summary text to support those visual elements. You need not only to present but also to explain your findings, showing how they help to address the research question(s) and how they align with the objectives that you presented in the Introduction . Keep in mind that results do not speak for themselves, so if you do not describe them in words, the reader may perceive the findings differently from you. Build coherence along this section using goal statements and explicit reasoning (guide the reader through your reasoning, including sentences of this type: ‘In order to…, we performed….’; ‘In view of this result, we ….’, etc.).
In summary, the general steps for writing the Results section of a research article are:
- Check the guidelines of your target journal and read articles that it has published in similar topics to your study.
- Catalogue your findings in relation to the journal requirements, and design figures and tables to organize your data.
- Write the Results section following the order of figures and tables.
- Edit and revise your draft and seek additional input from colleagues or experts.
The style of the Results section
‘If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor’, Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann said. Although the scope of the Results section −and of scientific papers in general− is eminently functional, this does not mean that you cannot write well. Try to improve the rhythm to move the reader along, use transitions and connectors between different sections and paragraphs, and dedicate time to revise your writing.
The Results section should be written in the past tense. Although writing in the passive voice may be tempting, the use of the active voice makes the action much more visualizable. The passive voice weakens the power of language and increases the number of words needed to say the same thing, so we recommend using the active voice as much as possible. Another tip to make your language visualizable and reduce sentence length is the use of verbal phrases instead of long nouns. For example, instead of writing ‘As shown in Table 1, there was a significant increase in gene expression’, you can say ‘As shown in Table 1, gene expression increased significantly’.
Get a second (and even third) opinion
Writing a scientific article is not an individual work. Take advantage of your co-authors by making them check the Results section and adding their comments and suggestions. Not only that, but an external opinion will help you to identify misinterpretations or errors. Ask a colleague that is not directly involved in the work to review your Results and then try to evaluate what your colleague did or did not understand. If needed, seek additional help from a qualified expert.
Common errors to avoid while writing the results section
Several mistakes frequently occur when you write the Results section of a research paper. Here we have collected a few examples:
- Including raw results and/or endlessly repetitive data. You do not need to present every single number and calculation, but a summary of the results. If relevant, raw data can be included in supplementary materials.
- Including redundant information. If data are contained in the tables or figures, you do not need to repeat all of them in the Results section. You will have the opportunity to highlight the most relevant results in the Discussion .
- Repeating background information or methods , or introducing several sentences of introductory information (if you feel that more background information is necessary to present a result, consider inserting that information in the Introduction ).
- Results and Methods do not match . You need to explain the methodology used to obtain all the experimental observations.
- Ignoring negative results or results that do not support the conclusions. In addition to posing potential ethical concerns on your work, reviewers will not like it. You need to mention all relevant findings, even if they failed to support your predictions or hypotheses. Negative results are useful and will guide future studies on the topic. Provide your interpretation for negative results in the Discussion .
- Discussing or interpreting the results . Leave that for the Discussion , unless your target journal allows preparing one section combining Results and Discussion .
- Errors in figures/tables are varied and common . Examples of errors include using an excessive number of figures/tables (it is a good idea to select the most relevant ones and move the rest to supplementary materials), very complex figures/tables (hard-to-read figures with many subfigures or enormous tables may confuse your readers; think how these elements will be visualized in the final format of the article), difficult to interpret figures/tables (cryptic abbreviations; inadequate use of colors, axis, scales, symbols, etc.), and figures/tables that are not self-standing (figures/tables require a caption, all abbreviations used need to be explained in the legend or a footnote, and statistical tests applied are frequently reported). Do not include tables and figures that are not mentioned in the body text of your Results .
In summary, the Results section is the nucleus of your paper that justifies your claims. Take time to adequately organize it and prepare understandable figures and tables to convey your message to the reader. Good writing!
- The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. https://abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/resources/writing/HTWsections.html – methods (accessed on 30th September 2020)
- Organizing Academic Research Papers: 7. The Results. https://library.sacredheart.edu/c.php?g=29803&p=185931 (accessed on 30th September 2020)
- Kendra Cherry. How to Write an APA Results Section. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-write-a-results-section-2795727 (accessed on 30th September 2020)
- Chapin Rodríguez. Empowering your scientific language by making it “visualizable”. http://creaducate.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/tipsheet36_visualizable-lang-tip-sheet.pdf (accessed on 1st October 2020)
- IMRaD Results Discussion. https://writingcenter.gmu.edu/guides/imrad-results-discussion (accessed on 1st October 2020)
- Writing the Results Section for a Research Paper. https://wordvice.com/writing-the-results-section-for-a-research-paper/ (accessed on 1st October 2020)
- Scott L. Montgomery. The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science , Chapter 9. Second edition, The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
- Hilary Glasman-Deal . Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English, Unit 2 . Imperial College Press, 2010.
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How to (seriously) read a scientific paper
- 21 Mar 2016
- By Elisabeth Pain
Adam Ruben's tongue-in-cheek column about the common difficulties and frustrations of reading a scientific paper broadly resonated among Science Careers readers. Many of you have come to us asking for more (and more serious) advice on how to make sense of the scientific literature, so we've asked a dozen scientists at different career stages and in a broad range of fields to tell us how they do it. Although it is clear that reading scientific papers becomes easier with experience, the stumbling blocks are real, and it is up to each scientist to identify and apply the techniques that work best for them. The responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
How do you approach reading a paper?
I start by reading the abstract. Then, I skim the introduction and flip through the article to look at the figures. I try to identify the most prominent one or two figures, and I really make sure I understand what's going on in them. Then, I read the conclusion/summary. Only when I have done that will I go back into the technical details to clarify any questions I might have. - Jesse Shanahan , master's candidate in astronomy at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut
I first get a general idea by reading the abstract and conclusions. The conclusions help me understand if the goal summarized in the abstract has been reached, and if the described work can be of interest for my own study. I also always look at plots/figures, as they help me get a first impression of a paper. Then I usually read the entire article from beginning to end, going through the sections in the order they appear so that I can follow the flow of work that the authors want to communicate.
If you want to make it a productive exercise, you need to have a clear idea of which kind of information you need to get in the first place, and then focus on that aspect. It could be to compare your results with the ones presented by the authors, put your own analysis into context, or extend it using the newly published data. Citation lists can help you decide why the paper may be most relevant to you by giving you a first impression of how colleagues that do similar research as you do may have used the paper. - Cecilia Tubiana , scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany
If I'm aiming to just get the main points, I'll read the abstract, hop to the figures, and scan the discussion for important points. I think the figures are the most important part of the paper, because the abstract and body of the paper can be manipulated and shaped to tell a compelling story. Then anything I'm unclear about, I head to the methodology.
If I want to delve deeper into the paper, I typically read it in its entirety and then also read a few of the previous papers from that group or other articles on the same topic. If there is a reference after a statement that I find particularly interesting or controversial, I also look it up. Should I need more detail, I access any provided data repositories or supplemental information.
Then, if the authors' research is similar to my own, I see if their relevant data match our findings or if there are any inconsistencies. If there are, I think about what could be causing them. Additionally, I think about what would happen in our model if we used the same methods as they did and what we could learn from that. Sometimes, it is also important to pay attention to why the authors decided to conduct an experiment in a certain way. Did the authors use an obscure test instead of a routine assay, and why would they do this? - Jeremy C. Borniger , doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Ohio State University, Columbus
I always start with title and abstract. That tells me whether or not it's an article I'm interested in and whether I'll actually be able to understand it—both scientifically and linguistically. I then read the introduction so that I can understand the question being framed, and jump right to the figures and tables so I can get a feel for the data. I then read the discussion to get an idea of how the paper fits into the general body of knowledge.
I pay attention to acknowledgement of limitations and proper inference of data. Some people stretch their claims more than others, and that can be a red flag for me. I also put on my epidemiologist hat so that I can try to make sure the study design is adequate to actually test the hypotheses being examined.
As I go deeper into the argument framing, figures, and discussion, I also think about which pieces are exciting and new, which ones are biologically or logically relevant, and which ones are most supported by the literature. I also consider which pieces fit with my pre-existing hypotheses and research questions. - Kevin Boehnke , doctoral candidate in environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
My reading strategy depends on the paper. Sometimes I start by skimming through to see how much might be relevant. If it is directly applicable to my current topic, I'll read the paper closely, apart from the introduction that is probably already familiar. But I always try to figure out if there are particular places or figures that I need to pay close attention to, and then I go and read the related information in the results and discussion.
I also check if there are references that I may be interested in. Sometimes I am curious to see who in the field has—or more likely has not—been referenced, to see whether the authors are choosing to ignore certain aspects of the research. I often find that the supplementary figures actually offer the most curious and interesting results, especially if the results relate to parts of the field that the authors did not reference or if they are unclear or unhelpful to their interpretation of the overall story. - Gary McDowell , postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and visiting scholar at Boston College
When reading papers, it helps me to have a writing task so that I am being an active reader instead of letting my eyes glaze over mountains of text only to forget everything I just read. So for example, when I read for background information, I will save informative sentences from each article about a specific topic in a Word document. I'll write comments along the way about new ideas I got or questions I need to explore further. Then, in the future, I'll only need to read this document instead of re-reading all the individual papers.
Likewise, when I want to figure out how to conduct a particular experiment, I create a handy table in Excel summarizing how a variety of research teams went about doing a particular experiment. - Lina A. Colucci , doctoral candidate at the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program
I usually start with the abstract, which gives me a brief snapshot of what the study is all about. Then I read the entire article, leaving the methods to the end unless I can't make sense of the results or I'm unfamiliar with the experiments.
The results and methods sections allow you to pull apart a paper to ensure it stands up to scientific rigor. Always think about the type of experiments performed, and whether these are the most appropriate to address the question proposed. Ensure that the authors have included relevant and sufficient numbers of controls. Often, conclusions can also be based on a limited number of samples, which limits their significance.
I like to print out the paper and highlight the most relevant information, so on a quick rescan I can be reminded of the major points. Most relevant points would be things that change your thinking about your research topic or give you new ideas and directions. - Lachlan Gray , deputy head of the HIV Neuropathogenesis Lab at the Burnet Institute and adjunct research fellow in the Department of Infectious Disease at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia
What I choose to read is based on relation to my research areas and things that are generating lots of interest and discussion because they are driving the way we do psychology, or science more widely, in new directions. Most often, what I am trying to get out of the papers is issues of methodology, experimental design, and statistical analysis. And so for me, the most important section is first what the authors did (methods) and second what they found (results).
It can also be interesting to understand why the authors thought they were doing the study (introduction) and what they think the results mean (discussion). When it is an area that I know a lot about, I don't usually care much about these sections because they often reflect the authors' theoretical predilections and one of many ways to think about the method and results. But when it is an area that I know very little about, I read these closely because then I learn a lot about the assumptions and explanatory approaches in that area of research. - Brian Nosek , professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Center for Open Science in Charlottesville
First I read very fast: The point of the first reading is simply to see whether the paper is interesting for me. If it is I read it a second time, slower and with more attention to detail.
If the paper is vital to my research—and if it is theoretical—I would reinvent the paper. In such cases, I only take the starting point and then work out everything else on my own, not looking into the paper. Sometimes this is a painfully slow process. Sometimes I get angry about the authors not writing clearly enough, omitting essential points and dwelling on superfluous nonsense. Sometimes I am electrified by a paper. - Ulf Leonhardt , professor of physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel
I nearly always read the abstract first and only continue on to the paper if the abstract indicates that the paper will be of value to me. Then, if the topic of the paper is one I know well, I generally skim the introduction, reading its last paragraph to make sure I know the specific question being addressed in the paper. Then I look at the figures and tables, either read or skim the results, and lastly skim or read the discussion.
If the topic is not one I know well, I usually read the introduction much more carefully so that the study is placed into context for me. Then I skim the figures and tables and read the results. - Charles W. Fox , professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington
It is important to realize that shortcuts have to be taken when reading papers so that there is time left to get our other work done, including writing, conducting research, attending meetings, teaching, and grading papers. Starting as a Ph.D. student, I have been reading the conclusions and methods of academic journal articles and chapters rather than entire books. - Rima Wilkes , professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver
As editor-in-chief of Science , I have to read and comprehend papers outside of my field all the time. Generally, I start with the corresponding editors' summaries, which are meant for someone like me: a science generalist who is interested in everything but dives deeply only into one field. Next, I check to see if someone wrote a News article on the paper. Third, I check to see if there is a Perspective by another scientist. The main goal of a Perspective is to broaden the message of the paper, but often the authors do a great job of extracting the essence of the article for non-specialists at the same time.
Then I tackle the abstract, which has been written to broadly communicate to the readership of the journal. Finally, I move on to the paper itself, reading, in order, the intro, conclusions, scanning the figures, and then reading the paper through. - Marcia K. McNutt , Editor-in-Chief, Science journals
What do you do when there is something you don't understand?
I like to read online so that I can easily cut and paste words I don't know into a browser to check what they mean. - McNutt
If it's only a few things in the article, I'll make a note to look them up later. If I am really struggling to proceed through the paper, I try to look up a review article or a textbook chapter to give me the necessary background to proceed, which I generally find much more efficient.
There are a lot of acronyms and jargon that can be subfield-specific, so I usually don't wade through the details unless it's for my own research. But I always try to take my time to really understand the methods being used. - Shanahan
I will typically pause immediately to look up things I don't understand. The rest of the reading may not make sense if I don't understand a key phrase or jargon. This can backfire a bit, though, as I often go down never-ending rabbit holes after looking something up (What is X? Oh, X influences Y. … So what's Y? etc…). This can be sort of fun as you learn how everything is connected, but if you're crunched for time this can pull your attention away from the task at hand.
Sometimes, all the jargon in a paper can cloud the whole point of the experiments in the first place. In such cases, it helps to ask yourself, "What question were the authors trying to answer?" Then you can determine whether they succeeded or failed. - Borniger
It depends on how much the non-understandable bits prevent me from following the main ideas. I usually do not try to understand all the details in all the sections the first time I read a paper. If non-understandable parts appear important for my research, I try to ask colleagues or even contact the lead author directly. Going back to the original references to get all the background information is the last resort, because time can be limited and collaborations and personal contacts can be much more efficient in solving specific problems. - Tubiana
Sometimes, you can just read through a paper and any terms you're not familiar with will become clearer by the end. If it is very heavy going, then stopping and seeking additional information is usually the way to go. I do a quick Google search on the topic, theme, method, jargon, etc. If it is a very dense article, sometimes it will require a few read-throughs before it all starts to make sense. - Gray
The question I ask myself is, "Do I need to understand what that means in order to get what I need from this paper?" I now read articles in research areas well outside of my expertise, and I often don't need more than superficial knowledge of the substantive content. If I can't do anything with the paper unless I don't understand that depth, then I do more background research. - Nosek
Lately, I have had to read a number of papers outside my area of expertise with a lot of unfamiliar jargon. In some cases, I am able to directly extract the information I need from the results or figures and tables. In other cases, I use Google searches to define terms and concepts in the paper or read the cited references to better understand the points being made. Occasionally, papers are so incomprehensible (to me, at least) that I don't bother reading them. - Fox
Do you ever feel overwhelmed reading papers, and how do you deal with that?
All the time. If the paper is relevant to a problem I am trying to solve, you can be sure that there are key things in the paper that I do not understand. That confusion is not a threat; it is an opportunity. I am ignorant ; I need to become less ignorant. This paper may help me.
Simultaneously, some papers are written terribly and are not worth the effort. Someone else has surely written about the concepts more clearly so that I can keep my confusion focused on understanding substance rather than poor grammar. - Nosek
I especially get overwhelmed if it's not in my subfield, if it's long, and if it's full of technical jargon. When this happens, I break it down into chunks and will read it over the course of a few days, if possible. For really difficult papers, it also helps to sit down and work through it with a colleague. - Shanahan
Yes, many times. This is why I developed my own reading strategies, by talking to other scientists and by trial and error. I also have thrown up my hands in frustration and tossed the offending papers away, never to read them again. - Boehnke
Yes, and in these cases you have to realize that some papers are the result of years of work by dozens of scientists. Expecting to digest and understand everything in it in one afternoon is a far-fetched idea. - Borniger
I have often felt overwhelmed! But certain sections might not need as deep an understanding as others. You also need to know your own limits: Are there some parts of the paper that you would like to emulate but are not part of your expertise and might become "accessible" through collaborations? - Tubiana
If I feel the paper is very important to what I'm doing, I'll leave it a while and go back to it again a couple of times. But if it's too overwhelming, then I have to leave it aside, unless someone among the colleagues I have contacted has been able to interpret it. - McDowell
Do you have any other tips you'd like to share?
If there is a seminal paper I want to thoroughly understand, I find some way to give a journal club-style presentation about it. Speaking about a particular paper and answering questions is the best way for me to learn the material.
Also, get a good reference manager. Mendeley helps me do my research, read literature, and write papers. - Colucci
At the beginning, new academic readers find it slow because they have no frame of reference for what they are reading. But there are ways to use reading as a system of creating a mental library, and after a few years, it becomes easy to slot papers onto your mental shelves. Then you can quickly skim a paper to know its contribution. - Wilkes
Be patient. Don't be afraid or ashamed to use Wikipedia or other, more lay-audience sources like blog posts to get a feel for your topic. Ask many, many questions. If you can't get a clear understanding of the paper, talk with people in your circle. If you are still confused and it's really important to understand the concepts, email the authors. - Boehnke
Don't hesitate to talk to more experienced scientists. You will be doing THEM a favor by having them explain to you in terms you understand what a complex paper means. All scientists need more experience translating complex concepts into common terms. - McNutt
If at all possible, read often. Try to keep a bibliography file with a summary of the article, any important points, even a figure or two, along with citation information. Pay attention to different ways of structuring an article, and pay attention to different styles of writing. This will help you develop a style that is effective and also unique. - Shanahan
About the author
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.
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Results Present the results of the paper, in logical order, using tables and graphs as necessary. Explain the results and show how they help to answer the research questions posed in the Introduction. Evidence does not explain itself; the results must be presented and then explained.
The results section of a quantitative research paper is where you summarize your data and report the findings of any relevant statistical analyses. The APA manual provides rigorous guidelines for what to report in quantitative research papers in the fields of psychology, education, and other social sciences.
The results and methods sections allow you to pull apart a paper to ensure it stands up to scientific rigor. Always think about the type of experiments performed, and whether these are the most appropriate to address the question proposed. Ensure that the authors have included relevant and sufficient numbers of controls.