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So much information, so little time: tips on efficiently reading a scientific article

I suspect that I am not alone in experiencing frustration from spending more time than I want reading a scientific article. I’ve also had the displeasure of gaining little knowledge despite spending time I could have used for something else. So, I thought I’d try to turn my displeasure into something positive and provide readers of this blog with some tips to help improve efficiency when reading journal articles. I am aware that there are many types of articles and reasons why you might read a scientific paper. These tips might not apply to your next experience. However, I think by understanding the concepts listed below, one can adapt them and perhaps improve efficiency.

Tip #1: Don’t pay much attention to the abstract unless you are reading it to gain a general understanding of what the paper/study is about and the type of article it is. Other than that, an abstract often doesn’t do an article justice. If abstracts summarized it all, we wouldn’t need the article.

Tip #2: If you are familiar with the subject, you might only need to scan the introduction/background for information you don’t know already. This step alone often saves much time.

Tip #3: The study purpose is usually located at the end of the introduction/background section. After the title, I often look here first to understand the specific reason why a study was conducted.

Tip #4: Methods sections describe the details of how a study was conducted. These sections include many details necessary for determining how to interpret findings. Much of the information needed to judge the rigor, or quality, of a study is included in Methods sections. Key information includes: how data was collected, how an intervention was applied and by whom, whether and/or how patients were randomly allocated, who was blinded, how patients were chosen, how diagnoses were made, and how outcomes were measured and analyzed.

Tip #5: Results sections provide information about the people that participated in the study as well as the primary analysis. I often look in this section to better understand who was studied and whether those who participated dropped out or not. When there are many dropouts, it can limit interpretation of results.

Tip #6: Discussion sections generally compare or contrast relevant literature, describe the author’s interpretation of the results, and list study limitations. If this information is important to you (which probably depends on why you are reading the article) then read it. Otherwise, you may only need to scan this section for something that catches your attention.

I have often found that reading an article from beginning to end is cumbersome. In many circumstances, I read from the middle first. Depending on what you are looking for, the “middle first” reading strategy can help more efficiently obtain information and provide the necessary details to judge an article appropriately.

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