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Journal Article Reading 101

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

If there is anything that I have consistently heard from my first-year in Life Sciences all the way up to my fourth-year in the program is that, “it gets easier!” While I do agree that life as a LifeSci has become more exciting over the years, one thing that I still have trouble with is dissecting the dreaded research paper. You know the ones I’m talking about, the kind that can extend over 20 pages with no end in sight, using all kinds of complex terminology I’ve never even heard of! While these papers may seem difficult to tackle at first, they can be quite simple once you’ve learned some of the basics! For the Life Science Society’s first MIREx workshop, we recruited Abeer Siddiqui, the science librarian, along with Katie Harding, the engineering librarian at McMaster to speak to some of the tips and tricks to help you get started on reading a STEM article!

The first step that Katie and Abeer say is one of the most crucial in the initial process is understanding the structure of a journal article. The best way to remember these components is to think of the acronym, IMRAD; We have an introduction which provides a background to the topic at hand, the methodology which outlines the procedure, the results of the study, and the discussion which provides an overall explanation of the study’s findings.

Next, Abeer and Katie relay Adam Ruben’s list of the (very relatable) stages that many of us may undergo when reading a scientific paper! I know that I definitely resonate with the distraction step, especially in the midst of a virtual semester. However, I am glad to know that there are others out there who are experiencing the same feelings as I am!


Although many individuals choose to read a scientific paper in chronological order, sometimes reading certain sections of the article first and coming back to other sections can help further your understanding! For instance, Abeer and Katie presented the following three pathways that one may take when reading a journal. These paths stem from the preferences of 3 different professors and scientists within the field. Some common themes among the pathways include analyzing the tables/figures early on in the paper as visualizations can be a great method of understanding as opposed to reading the complex details. Another important theme that Abeer mentioned was that some scientists choose to read the discussion at the end or not at all. This is due to the fact that a discussion typically contains the author’s personal interpretation of the data and may limit the reader’s ability to think beyond these explanations. Abeer says that good scientists are known for drawing their own conclusions surrounding the data rather than simply agreeing with the author’s opinion.

Next, Abeer and Katie present the 3-Pass Approach to reading an article which outlines 3 different paths to take when starting a new paper. The Bird’s Eye View requires a 5-10 minute read where the reader skims the headings of the article to gain a sense of its context and category. With this approach, the reader decided whether the content of the paper is relevant to their research and chooses to keep reading or move on. The next approach is Surface Reading where the reader is tasked with processing the paper’s results and summarizing the main findings through figures/diagrams. Katie says that these two steps are often enough, however, if you really want to understand the paper in detail, she suggests doing a Deep Dive. This step consists of conceptualizing the findings of the paper and applying a critical analysis of its methods or identifying and criticisms.

Finally, Abeer and Katie dive into some of the tips and tricks to understanding a large section of scientific literature: the diagrams! There are three main types of figures in an article that may pertain to different sections of the paper. The first type includes figures that indicate what is happening within the methods (i.e. experimental set-up), the second type includes a visual representation of the data (i.e. graphs), and the third includes a summary of the findings or a framework of the paper’s content.

Well, there you have it! These are some of Abeer and Katie’s approaches to tackling the dreaded stem article.

If you would like to contact either of these wonderful presenters, their contact information is as follows:

Abeer Siddiqui (Science Librarian):

Katie Harding (Engineering Librarian):

Although we have all been through the ups and downs that come with reading a journal article, I think that the information and advice that Katie and Abeer presented do a great job of reassuring the reader that it is absolutely okay to feel some sort of frustration. Seeing as many of us are still undergrads, we cannot beat ourselves up over the fact that we are not experts in the field and there will always be information that we are unsure of! The important thing is that we are compassionate with ourselves and always persevere!

~ Devena M.


By Devena Mahabir LSS Co-President 2020 - 2021

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