Components of a Scientific Paper
Scientific papers are extremely vital in the world science; they are one of the important ways researchers communicate and present their results and ideas to at least one another. If you are considering a career that involves science, reading the scientific literature is a must! Scientific papers contain up-to-date information about a field and other previous research, thus if you are interested in a specific study, reading the scientific literature in the field can really help in your study and educate you in what has already been discovered and what has yet to be answered. And the one fascinating thing about science is that each time one question is answered, the solution may as well unlock a series of new, unthought-of questions.
The Parts and Uses of Primary Research Articles
Primary research articles are typically broken down into six sections: abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, and references. A few journals have slightly different formats due to their space constraints or target audience. The most common alteration is to combine the results and discussion parts into a single section. Each part of the paper serves a unique purpose and can help your research project in a different way.
The abstract is a summary of the paper. It usually highlights the main question(s) the authors investigated, provides the key results of their experiments, and gives an overview of the authors’ conclusions. Reading the abstract will help you decide if the article was what you were looking for, or not, without spending a long time reading the whole paper. Abstracts are usually accessible for free either online at journals’ websites or in scientific literature databases.
The introduction gives background information about the topic of the paper, and sets out the specific questions to be addressed by the authors. The quantity and thoroughness of the background information will depend on both the authors’ proclivities, and the guidelines for that specific journal. Throughout the introduction, there will be citations for previously published articles or reviews that discuss the same topic. Use these citations as recommendations for other articles you can refer to for additional background reading.
Reading the introduction is a test of whether or not you are ready to read the rest of the paper; if the introduction doesn’t make sense to you, then the rest of the paper won’t either. If you find yourself baffled by the introduction, try going to other sources for information about the topic before you tackle the rest of the paper. Good sources can include a textbook; online tutorials, reviews, or explanations; a review article or earlier primary research article (perhaps one of the ones cited in the introduction); or a mentor. If even after trying all these sources you’re still confused, it may be time to consider a new topic.
Materials and Methods
The materials and methods section gives the technical details of how the experiments were carried out, including the types of controls used and where unusual resources (like a bacterial strain or a publicly available data set) were obtained. Reading the methods section is helpful in understanding exactly what the authors did. After all, if you don’t understand their experiments, it will be impossible to judge the veracity of their results and conclusions! This section also serves as a “how-to” manual if you’re interested in carrying out similar experiments, or even in repeating the same experiments as the authors did.
The materials and methods section is most commonly placed directly after the introduction. But if you can’t find it there, check the end of the paper, just before the references, or look for a URL within the research article for a “supplementary information” section online.
The results section is the real meat of a primary research article; it contains all the data from the experiments. The figures contain the majority of the data. The accompanying text contains verbal descriptions of the pieces of data the authors feel were most critical. The writing may also put the new data in the context of previous findings. However, often due to space constraints, authors usually do not write text for all their findings and instead, rely on the figures to impart the bulk of the information. So to get the most out of the results section, make sure to spend ample time thoroughly looking at all the graphs, pictures, and tables, and reading their accompanying legends!
Three types of information can be extracted from the results section: data from the experiments, ideas about how to improve the methods, and an understanding of how to represent similar data. Clearly, this is the section of the paper you refer to if you need to know exactly what the researchers found out, particularly if you need data to compare with your own findings, or to use to build your own hypothesis. The results section is also useful for understanding whether the methods of an experiment worked well. For example, a graph of the data might show that although the authors took time points every hour, there was no change at all until five hours into the experiment, and then the change was rapid. By interpreting their graph yourself and making this observation, you would be able to repeat the experiment, with differentially spaced time points, to resolve what actually happened during the fifth hour. And last, but not least, studying the figures will help you understand how to represent your own data in a way that is clear, accurate, and in keeping with the standards in that particular field of science.
The discussion section is the authors’ opportunity to give you their opinions. It is where they draw conclusions about the results. They may choose to put their results in the context of previous findings and offer theories or new hypotheses that explain the sum body of knowledge in the field. Or the authors may comment on new questions and avenues of exploration that their results give rise to. The purpose of discussion sections in papers is to allow the exchange of ideas between scientists. As such, it is critical to remember that the discussions are the authors’ interpretations and not necessarily facts. However, this section is often a good place to get ideas about what kind of research questions are still unanswered in the field and thus, what types of questions you might want your own research project to tackle.
Throughout the article, the authors will refer to information from other papers. These citations are all listed in the references section, sometimes referred to as the bibliography. Both review articles (often cited as “reviewed in…”) and primary research articles, as well as books or other relevant sources, can be found in the references section. Regardless of the type of source, there will always be enough information (authors, title, journal name, publication date, etc.) for you to find the source at a library or online. This makes the reference section incredibly useful for broadening your own literature search. If you’re reading a paragraph in the current paper and want more information on the content, you should always try to find and read the articles cited in that paragraph.