How to Read Scientific Papers, Use Journal Databases, and Other Such Skills?

Undergraduate student in the biological sciences, started working in a lab this summer, post-doc has these weekly assignments for me in which she'll give me a question, rather broad in scope (this week's, for example: "What causes the failure of chemotherapy in metastatic breast cancer?") that I'm supposed to use PubMed to research. A few questions for you gentlemen of science:

1. What is your preferred method for reading scientific papers, especially for assignments such as these? In what order do you read the sections (right now I'm doing Abstract-Discussion-Intro-Results, usually skip the methods b/c I'm not terribly familiar with all the procedures yet), how in-depth do you read the article, and do you take notes?

2. How do you manage your references to fit the scope of your project/assignment? I mean, I go into PubMed, find some articles I think are relevant, then I read the articles the original articles cited, and so on into a never-ending citation trail in which the number of articles I'm looking at grows exponentially. How do you know when you don't have to go any further? 

Also, I'm looking to go into research (grad school) later on, so any other tips you have that are relevant would be greatly appreciated!

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First off, I'll say that most research papers are written in a very precise, specialized working phraseology-- often arcane.  Your first goal should be to understand the technical language; get yourself a good pocket medical dictionary or find one on-line.

If you're doing a cursory reading, the abstract and results sections should suffice.  For a deeper understanding, carefully study the main body of the paper, line-by-line, until you master the content.

I wouldn't worry about references unless they pertain directly to the issue you're researching.  Once your questions are answered you've gone far enough.  You might also want to consider surprising your post-doc with some well thought out questions of your own.

PubMed is a great resource but here are some further references you might want to check out:

Hope this helps.

Thank you for the advice. The pocket medical dictionary in particular sounds like a good idea; I've recently come to realize first-hand what a difference knowing all the terms makes when reading these papers, haha.

For 1, I usually start with the abstract, followed by intro, then results and discussion. I tend to go back to the methods section if I want to dig deeper into how they obtain their results or how they did their experiments. I always like to read the intro to provide myself some background information. If I am not familiar with the methods they use, I usually google search to find out more.

For 2, it depends on the scope of your project. Find the refs that are most relevant to your research. Are you using referencing/bibliographic software (e.g. Endnote, Refworks) to store your citations? This will help you immensely in your lit reviews and later on in grad school when you start writing manuscripts for publications and of course your grad thesis! Saves you a lot of time-the other option would be manually inputting your reference lists, which will take forever if you have a 100 or so references (or more).

I recently finished my M.Sc. in Biology. You are currently on a good start getting research experience in the lab. Some important pieces of advice I can give you is (1) to do what you love- what area in the field excites you the most? what area do you enjoy learning about? Grad school is not going to be easy- it can be a long road depending on the degree you are pursuing (2-6 years) plus you may be expected to put in long hours in the lab with low pay so if you are working on something that truely interests you, it will make the experience much more enjoyable (2) pick the right supervisor/thesis advisor- not only in terms of shared research interests but also whether he/she is a good person to work with; you can find out about these things through current/previous grad students, postdocs, etc. in the lab. Some questions you may want to ask: Is he/she readily available when you need help? Does he/she work well with others? respectful to/reasonable with others? Do the students in his/her lab complete their degrees in a timely manner? How productive is the lab (publication records, journals published in, etc..)? Where do the lab alumni go after they graduate? You do not want to be stuck with a bad supervisor throughout the course of your degree- I have heard horror stories from people who have, (3) apply for scholarships/fellowships whenever you can- adds to the CV and gets you extra cash, (4) get to know your fellow colleagues- not only in your lab but in other labs in your department,  and (5) have fun- most people in grad school are in it because they love what they do. Grad school is full of ups and downs but if you find that you are hating every minute of it something is wrong!

Thanks, Tim, for your input. I've never used EndNote or anything like that before, but that is going to change today, now that I've seen first-hand how convenient it is!

Hey Lon,

I know that this is a bit of an old post and I hope that your biology studies have treated you well! I'm currently doing some research for a senior undergrad class on Manuka honey's effects on MRSA infections. One thing that I've learned to do while reading journal articles is to stop after each section and write a summary in my own words of what that section said. My short term memory is pretty garbage (specifically while reading highly intellectual material) and it helps for me to remember and recall the just of what the article says. Like Richard said, PubMed is a good source, but there are quite a few different databases that can give you free articles; especially if your school's library has subscriptions to some. 

I hope that helps a bit and it's not too late to be useful!


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