Reading scientific literature

You all know that reading scientific texts, be it introductory text books or scientific research articles, is a different experience than reading e.g. a novel or a magazine. It feels different and is usually more difficult. That often comes from the content, which in itself can be complicated and difficult to understand. It can also come from conventions in writing about research findings which sometimes make those publications boring and tedious to read. If you are new to the topic, reading a research article will make you feel lost because you don’t know the work and authors it references and you have difficulties to understand what it is good for in the first place. But there are ways to deal with it, but back to reading. We read scientific material for a particular purpose, usually not for recreation but for understanding something better, and for our education or job qualification. This kind of reading resembles work rather than leisure. So, this literature is written differently, and we read for different purposes than we read our usual stuff. But how is it written and how should we read it for not getting all stressed out about probably not getting important parts and doing bad in our studies?

How is scientific literature written and why should we bother?

Knowing something about the craft of writing up research is of course handy for preparing your own reports and theses. It also gives you more insight in understanding structure and format of a text which makes it more accessible to you while reading. There are extensive guidelines for writing scientific literature for example here and in very good books like this one. The first and probably most important difference in writing a scientific text compared to a novel or other stuff, is that you don’t want to create suspension, not purposefully or by accident. You don’t want to surprise your reader with your finding in the end like in a crime story but you want to throw the important parts and findings at him or her as soon as possible. In articles there is an abstract which explains in the first sentence or two, why the research is important for what reasons. Then, which questions are answered. How the questions are answered and what the answers and conclusions are. No one would read a crime story with an abstract like that. In scientific reading, this helps us a lot to decide whether the article actually is for us or not and even more to understand its content. Well written texts present important key messages at the beginning of a chapter and at the first sentence of a paragraph. The first sentence of a paragraph is usually called topic sentence, and gives away a finding or claim, which the rest of the paragraph then explains with more detail and by weighing some arguments in its favour and against it. Here is the first link to reading strategies. You can skim well written texts. Skimming is just reading the first sentence of each paragraph for getting a rough overview of where the article’s argument is taking you.

How should I read scientific literature?

There are different kinds of writings. There are books that synthesise research from a long project or a researcher's life, there are textbooks for introducing to students the basic concepts or methods or theories of a discipline or research field. There are also books with chapters on different subtopics by different authors, which are often structured like articles. And there are articles. These can be original research (answering a specific question), conceptual papers (outlining a framework for understanding a certain topic or class of problems), and there are reviews (summarising other research articles on a certain topic). The reading strategies are mostly applicable for articles, but except a textbook, they can be helpful for reading a book efficiently too.
In the following  some strategies that might be helpful for you in order to deal with the literature to be prepared in the remainder of the course are presented. If you want to go further, check out this for a very good and more complete account.

#1 Skim the article:

Have a look the article structure and skim the text by reading the first sentence of each paragraph. Ask yourself questions while skimming.

#2 Set reading goals and actively pursue them while reading:

What are you particularly interested in? If you read for a particular assignment in the course, write down the questions you want to keep in the back of your head while reading, like: what are basic transition pathways, how do they work and what are their prerequisites? When you read, be active and pursue them. Every time a transition pathway is mentioned, make a note for answering the question of your reading goal. These goals can also evolve from your first skim.

#3 Summarize, don’t highlight

It’s better for our brain to rephrase the things we want to remember. Just highlighting passages might help find an important part again in the text, but it has almost no effect on your memory or understanding.

#4 Be aware of your understanding

While reading, question what you read. Try to find ways to challenge it or predict where the argument is going next. Use your prior knowledge and intuition for this. When you find yourself repeating one sentence or passage again and again, try to formulate a question about what you don’t understand and why (and post it in the leuphana moodle forum of course 😃 ).

#5 Try to detect main points by structure and key words

You can identify key messages of a text by looking into the title, the abstract or by looking out for key phrases like described here in chapter 2. (We hypothesise that..., contrary to other findings.., surprising…, we introduce.., we develop…, data suggest that.., ….)

#6 Learn to tolerate frustration

Especially in the beginning it is hard to get into this kind of literature. But it is good and helpful, to start with it early. Don’t expect to become very good at this in a short time though and prepare for practicing this life long.