Reading a Scientific Paper
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Maintained by Harry E. Pence, Professor of Chemistry, SUNY Oneonta, for the
use of his students. Any opinions are totally coincidental and have no official
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Last Revised January 23, 2004
READING PRIMARY CHEMISTRY SOURCES
For many students, scientific articles combine high information density and
an unusual vocabulary with an unfamiliar writing style. When you first look
at a journal article, the material may appear to be overwhelming. Don't despair!
Reading an article out of the field of your training may be difficult even for
college faculty. Use the following questions to help you get started. Your initial
goal should be to develop a simple statement describing what the researchers
did. This may be all the information you need from a given article, or it may
serve as a basis for more extensive study. You'll find that each time you read
an article using this approach, your ability to put the material into your own
words will improve.
- Start by focusing on just
the abstract. Try to understand WHY the study
was done. What question (or questions) is this research addressing? Identify
any unfamiliar terms that you may need to look up. Remember that chemists
may use terms in ways that are different from the typical usage, so it's
best to use a chemical dictionary.
- What seems to be the general type of research reported? Were the authors
trying to synthesize and characterize a new type of compound? Were they testing
a new analytical procedure? Were they trying to confirm some prediction made
- Next, skim through the methods section to determine what methods were
used. These methods may well also be unfamiliar to you, so don't get bogged
down trying to understand the specifics.
- Next, look at each diagram in the paper. If there are drawings of the instrumentation
used, they may come in handy later on. Look especially for graphs that indicate
the results of the research. You will probably want to refer back to these
when you do the next step and read the conclusions section.
- Continue by going to the section titled "conclusions" (sometimes
buried in the end of the discussion without a specific label). If the paper
is well written, this should be the answer to the question that was stated
at the beginning of the work.
- Based on what you have read so far, try to formulate a statement summarizing
the research. For example, you might conclude that these scientists were attempting
to determine the levels of oxidizing compounds in an urban atmosphere using
multi-pass FT-IR. Now look at the title. Does it agree with your statement?
- Formulate a list of the things you need to know to understand the paper,
that is, special vocabulary words, unfamiliar instrumental techniques, and
any specific theories that are used to interpret the results. Not only will
you need to understand this material, but in your paper you will want to make
sure that you clarify these items for your audience. Remember that about 50%
of your presentation should be based on this background material.
- Finally, you are ready to really dig into the paper, learning about the
different methods and terminology that are used. As you do so, keep in mind
the summary of the article that you have written. You may need to revise it
as you understand the paper better. As you create your presentation for senior
seminar, your summary should become the the organizing theme. If you find
that the paper deals with several different questions, don't feel that you
need to address all of them. Pick the one(s) that are most interesting to
you (or that you understand best).
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