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Patricia Puentes

What Makes the Perfect Watch — or Read — for Pandemic Times?

how much time to read a scientific paper

I mean no disrespect to director Spike Lee, but I watched his 155-minute-long movie Da Five Bloods during four consecutive days breaking it out into 40ish-minute bites. I loved it. From the music choices to the amazing performances from Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Chadwick Boseman and its inclusion of historical events and figures. The thing is, I don’t know if I’d like it that much had I done the right thing and watched it from start to finish in one sitting.

It’s been almost a year since we had to first seclude ourselves at home. Movie theaters, concerts and live performances have been out of the question. So have parties and other gatherings with friends and family. Long gone are the days when I eagerly lined up at 9 am for an early press screening of the harrowing 12 Years a Slave (2013) at the Toronto International Film Festival. In part because the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) celebrated its 2020 edition virtually. But also because of the shift I’ve noticed in my patience and endurance as a viewer (and reader).

With the first anniversary of pandemic times around the corner, I took inventory of some best practices when it comes to consuming entertainment at home. Right now reading and watching films and TV shows have become our rare source of escapism. Let’s make it worth it.

Revisit Some Comfort Shows and Reads

2020 taught us some lessons regarding viewing and reading habits. We enjoy the old classics. The Office and Grey’s Anatomy topped the list of most-streamed content in 2020 . Ozark , Lucifer and The Mandalorian — all of them with several seasons on-air and/or being part of an existing franchise — were among the most-streamed original series . The sequel Frozen II was the most-watched at-home movie in 2020. And the majority of people decided to read (or reread) Harry Potter , The Hunger Games and To Kill a Mockingbird during the pandemic.

how much time to read a scientific paper

If you know you like something — or that it brings you joy — don’t shy away from it. That doesn’t mean just sticking with comfort or preexisting entertainment — that would have prevented us from discovering new propositions like the supernatural horror show Lovecraft Country and Kaley Cuoco’s foray into the international mystery genre with The Flight Attendant .

But it also means this might not be the ideal time to be too adventurous when you choose what to watch or read. Unless it’s by André Aciman or Donna Tartt — or it’s one of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels— I never commit to a book blindly. First, I need to check that it has more than four stars on Goodreads — meaning it’s been out for a little while and people have already read it and liked it. I also like sampling it, using the “Send a free sample” tool on Amazon. Only if I like those first pages do I decide to actually read it in full. And even then, there’s no law against dropping a book at a 70% reading completion rate if you no longer enjoy it.

Genre Matters

Historical fiction, mystery and romance are the genres I read for pleasure. In regular years I also enjoy science fiction, memoirs, and heady scientific books about climate change. I might even dabble in poetry. Not lately. I stick to the classics and try to mix things up only by discovering new authors in my preferred genres.

how much time to read a scientific paper

I do the same for movies and TV shows. I watched The Invisible Man in a movie theater right before everything closed back in February 2020 but — even though I actually loved it — I doubt I’d have watched it at home during the lockdown. I’m terrified of horror movies. Plus, the collective experience of watching a film in a theater with other people reacting to it is very different from the one you can have home alone.

I’m trying to honor films in the best way possible when I consume them at home. I watch them on my medium-to-biggish-sized TV, at night, with the lights off — and I try to stay away from other devices. But I no longer force myself to finish something if I’m not enjoying it.

If I’m trying to watch a movie and I catch myself aimlessly checking my phone while looking for a party dress or a blazer that I won’t be able to wear anywhere, it’s probably time to call it a night and stop watching. The same goes for a book. If, instead of reading, I’m looking for excuses to check my Twitter feed, it’s time to choose another novel.

Abide by the Less Is Less Mantra

I know there’s not that much going on in terms of entertainment right now. But beware of the whole “binge-watching” experience.

how much time to read a scientific paper

Take your time, space out your enjoyment. Make it special, precisely because finding the right fit is tough. Instead of gobbling the next episode of WandaVisio n the minute it drops on Disney Plus, make it a date — with yourself or with your cohabitants. Dress up for the occasion — extra points for decade-appropriate outfits — and savor the experience.

And make your own rules. I really think 90 minutes is the ideal length for a movie but filmmakers don’t always agree. In a movie theater, I indulge their artistic choices. But at home, I get to decide. So instead of the Da 5 Bloods feature film, I decided I was watching Da 5 Bloods , a four-episode miniseries. It just worked better for me that way. And it allowed me to enjoy one of 2020’s best movies.


how much time to read a scientific paper

How long does it take for you to read and understand a typical paper?

how much time to read a scientific paper

I've been reading papers on neuroscience recently and I can (and usually have to) spend up to 3 hours just trying to understand a single 30 page paper. And that's not including data analysis sections, as I don't have the stats background to even have a chance at understanding what's going on in those.

In my particular case, I have a decent knowledge of molecular neuroscience (I at least understand all the basics), but it doesn't seem to help me at all in making sense of these papers.

How do you digest papers, and what do you do to make your process as efficient as possible? And does it get easier with experience, or not really?

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It gets easier the more papers you read, for sure.

I also fill out a table I made while I read. I force myself to summarize the research question, what previous data said, methods, and the answer to the research question in my own words. It’s helpful. You can have your summary include as many questions as you wanna answer for your own benefit. :)

You can make an easy Google Form for this purpose. It helps stay focused and hitting “submit” feels great.

It takes me 5 minutes to 80% understand the paper, 15 more minutes to 95% understand the paper, and 30 more minutes to >99% understand the paper.

You just have to get good at deciding how much you need to understand a paper and adjust accordingly.

My experience with neuroscience papers: 5 min to understand the idea, and whether I want to read the paper.

10-15 min to get the gist of it and add it to the library. But I always feel guilty after going that deep. After a 5 minutes skim, I can at least pretend that one day I'll reread the paper in depth, but after 15 min I'm pretty much done, yet of course I only understand the key messages, and maybe one caveat.

For a deep read, I need somewhere between an hour and 2 hours, depending on how long the paper is, and how familiar I am with the topic / methods. 3 hours is probably on a higher end, but it can be 3 hours, if the paper is on a topic closely related to mine, from a richer lab, or something like that.

I think it gets a bit easier with experience, but at least for me it is still torturous =) Good luck!

This is about how long it takes me as well

I have difficulty focusing on heavy reading and even take a while to read something like a long NYT article. That said, it takes me probably about an hour to read a biology paper. It does get easier over time. Eventually you can learn enough of the background that the intro is a lot of information you are already familiar with, and the discussion is a lot of ideas you could have or did come up with on your own while reading the results. There’s kind of a standard set of questions you get in the habit of asking yourself while reading that help you actually understand the paper. Mostly some version of “what does this figure mean?” and trying to relate it 5o what you already know about the topic.

It does get easier - the more you read papers, the more you understand the theory, lingo, stats etc. There is also a certain technique to reading papers efficiently. You do not need to read every line from start to finish. Most information in the paper can be skipped unless, for example, you are doing a replication. Usually I read the abstract, skim the intro (skipping the first paragraph or two), if there is something I don't understand or is new to me in the intro, I will read that bit in more detail. Usually you can skip the method because there is a diagram of the procedure (in psychology/cognitive neuroscience at least), and skip the details in the results because you can just look at the graphs. From that, you know waht they did and what they found - you can come to your own conclusions about what it means. Skip down to the last couple of paragraphs of the discussion to see what their take home message was. Reading a paper this way, you can do it in 10-15 minutes. Of course, take more time to read the intro/discussion if you is helpful for learning more about the field.

Don't be disheartened if it is taking a long time to get through them. It used to take me the best part of an afternoon or day to get through a paper, it is just a skill that gets better with practice.

You've probably heard that there's a method to reading scientific papers, but just in case, know that you don't need to read the entire thing start to finish. I'm in chemistry, and I rarely read an Experimental section unless I'm looking for a technique to use. My usual flow is Abstract --> Figures --> Results & Discussion and that's it, unless I feel like something's missing and then I might read the Introduction.

Difficult to say it really depends case by case. What is that you are actually trying to achieve? Depending on your goal you may have different strategies that take advantage of the fact that a paper is following IMRaD structure.

This is normally what I advice to my students:


In your particular case, ask yourself if you need to understand all the details. If that is not the case you may want to stop at the level of understanding the outcome. On the other hand if you need more you have to consider the possibility of knowing the topic more and/or to seek advice from a colleague that is expert in that area.

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how much time to read a scientific paper

Towards Data Science

Kyle M Shannon

Jul 21, 2018

Guide to Reading Academic Research Papers

Learn to tackle this laborious process with a systematic approach.

Working in data science and machine learning is an exciting and challenging field. New techniques and tools are constantly percolating and honestly, it can feel overwhelming. Many of these new developments are found and first revealed in academic research articles. Extracting knowledge from these articles is difficult because the intended audience of these papers tend to be other researchers. Yet in order to stay current reading papers is an essential skill — luckily one that can be improved with diligence and practice.

In graduate school, you get good (should get good…) at reading papers and ingesting research. Not everyone will get training in this skill, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t benefit from the knowledge these papers hold. Public tax money is how most of this research gets funded anyways! The goal here is to democratize academia, just a bit, and provide you with a scaffolding to apply when walking through a paper.

The way I read papers is not significantly unique, but it is effective and has served me well. Keep in mind it is not the only way, many techniques exist and as you read more and more I am sure you will find your own unique style.

This guide is broken down as follows:

Why Learn to Read Papers?

Reading papers certainly builds character because It often takes many hours and there is no guarantee you walk away with the whole story. This is not to disparage you, but merely to be open and transparent. Reading papers is difficult, there are no two ways about it. Advances in fields such as machine learning, deep learning, data science, databases, and data engineering often come in the form of academic research, whose language is that of academic papers. Think about some of the techniques you might use: Convolutional Neural Networks , PCA , and AdaBoost (even Deep Boosting !). These all came out of research, and yes they all have papers. Also, consider that there are many papers on the application and use of these techniques and when you are trying to solve a specific problem, these papers can be critical. Beyond staying current with research it is also worth traveling to the past and giving older papers a read. You will learn so much. I promise.

Looking at the field of deep learning it seems as though a new critical paper is coming out every few days or weeks. The only way to stay on top of it is to get a hold of the paper and give it a read.

Where the Difficulties Arise…

Here is a figure from a 2017 scientific paper¹ by Hubbard and Dunbar, about reading scientific papers. Scientific Paper inception!

A : The proportion of participants considering a section easy to read (presented as ‘Somewhat easy’, ‘easy’ ‘very easy’ combined) as a function of career stage. Results of Chi-square tests are indicated on the left hand side. B: The mean importance rank of sections as a function of career stage. Error bars are omitted from individual points for clarity, with the sole error bar in grey representing the largest 95% confidence interval for any of the data points. Asterisks above data points indicate significant differences in response compared with the previous career stage as determined by Mann-Whitney post-hoc tests.

One unsurprising result indicates the further an academic progresses into their career, the easier they find each section of a paper to read. An interesting point is how the various career stages view the importance of each section. Methods, Results and figures seem to be very important, ostensibly because as academics they have greater skill in their field, allowing them to be critical of a paper’s methods. It also means they know their field very well, thereofore, the introduction and abstract have less importance. Early stage PhD students find the methods, results, and figures fairly difficult to understand. This makes perfect sense as those are the areas of a paper that require the most knowledge of a field to get through. You are likely to have a similar experience.

What is it exactly that makes going through this process so difficult and time consuming?

Clearly there is a lot to consider when reading a paper. Scared? Time to lighten the mood. Here is a hilarious article written on the horrors of reading papers by Dr. Adam Ruben from Science . It shows even scientists can agree that papers are both difficult to read and given how dense they are, will keep you regular.

Think about this, the more papers you read, the more you will learn and the faster this process of reading becomes. Trends start cropping up into plain view, and you begin to gain insight into the scientific method , understand what certain authors and groups are working on, and form an appreciation for the field you are learning about. Over time all of this knowledge and skill builds into your ability to read papers quicker, more efficiently and with greater success. Learning to read papers is akin to learning to eat. It is messy at first, and your palette is not very well developed. But over time your eating experience enhances and you learn more about what you like and don’t like and when a chef’s meal is good and poor.

How Papers are Organized

Good news here. The overwhelming majority of papers follow, more or less, the same convention of organization:

Developing a Systematic Approach

When you sit down to read it’s important to have a plan. Simply starting to read from page one to the end will probably do you no good. Beyond retaining limited information, you will be exhausted and have gained very little for the tremendous effort. This is where many people stop.

Do plan to spend anywhere from 3–6 hours to really digest a paper, remember they are very dense! Be ready and willing to make several passes through the paper, each time looking to extract different information and understanding. And please, do yourself a favor and do not read the paper front to end on your first pass.

Below are two lists. (i.) the systematic approach I take, more or less, when reading a paper (ii.) a general list of questions I try to answer as I go through the paper. I typically add more specific questions depending on the paper.

Let’s get started!

As mentioned above, here is a general list of questions to help guide you. If you can answer these you have a solid understanding of the paper, at least to where you can communicate intelligently about it to others.

I recommend finding people either in person or online to discuss the paper. Start a journal club with a goal of getting through 1–2 papers a month. The amount of extra insight I have gained from discussing a paper with a friend is immense. Remember.. the only thing better than suffering through a paper alone, is suffering through it with friends!

On another note there was a good article written by Keshav³ on how to read a paper. He introduces and explores a three phrase approach that might be of some interest to you. Give it a read as well!

Tools to Help You Get the Job Done

You can find papers primarily from several sources:

As you begin to read more papers you are going to want to store them somewhere. Tossing PDFs into a folder on your drive is all well and good, but there are creature comforts missing. Most researchers and grad students use a reference manager . Zotero and Mendeley are very popular, I like Zotero. Recently, I have been using PaperPile . I like PaperPile because it is lightweight, lives in my browser, and uses Google Drive to back up and store all my PDFs. It has a simple, refreshing user interface, and it has a really good tagging and folder hierarchy system. I can also annotate PDFs in my browser and build citation lists when I write. You get a lot of these features with almost any reference manager, but I happen to like PaperPile best.

A reference manager will quickly become your best friend as you collect and read more and more papers.

Thanks for reading through this. I hope you found it helpful and it gave you some good ideas when tackling your next paper. Most people have their own unique process when reading a paper. I am sure you will develop your own tweaks in time, hopefully this is a good template for you to get started.

For now just trust the process .

I am also hoping that we will get some good feedback and comments with other tips and tricks from readers.

Reach me at: [email protected] linkedin.com/in/kmshannon/ twitter.com/ButFirstData

[1] Hubbard, K. E., & Dunbar, S. D. (2017). Perceptions of scientific research literature and strategies for reading papers depend on academic career stage. PloS one , 12 (12), e0189753.

[2] Shout out to Chris at CoffeeCycle ! Simply the best coffee in San Diego.

[3] Keshav, S. (2007). How to read a paper. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review , 37 (3), 83–84.

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How long should it take to read a paper?

I am wondering how long it usually takes to read a research article. I can see that the answer depends on:

So I am particularly interested in how long a PhD student or a young post-doc would take to get through a molecular or systems biology paper published in journals like Nature , Science , Cell , PLoS and PNAS . We can focus on papers of typical complexity for the journal, and ignore those that are exceptionally easy to read or exceptionally complex.

On multiple occasions I have been able to skim an 8 page, 5 figure paper in as little as 10-15 minutes. From this I could glean enough information to follow and even participate in a class or journal club discussion (though there would be a lot of asking question like "how exactly did they do this/explain this in the paper? I didn't read very carefully").

However, when a paper is very important (for example I want to use a variation of their methods for my own project) I feel the need to read it much more carefully. It seems worthwhile to closely look at even very trivial things, such as description of standard procedures like cell culture in the methods, exactly how much of each chemical was used for simple, routine reactions, close examination of control experiments from the supplement, what papers the paper has referenced to justify their work, and even what commercial systems were used and from which company, and whether the paper actually followed the protocol in the manual and so on. After putting this much effort, I also feel like I should take notes. This produces a heavily highlighted and annotated paper plus about 4 pages of notes.

All of this takes a lot of time. Occasionally it could take me a few days to work my way through a very important paper (for instance, if their method is unfamiliar to me and I will be adapting it for my own research, or if I want to draw conclusions by reanalyzing their data).

My question is, is this typical? How long do you usually take to read a paper? Should I start putting effort into teaching myself to read faster, or should I just accept it and make time by scheduling other activities to accomodate paper reading?

I can imagine an "incremental" strategy for reading at arbitrary depth. For instance, you could read the paper several times, each time reading more carefully, like so:

Logically, I see the merit of something like this, but I haven't tried it for the "dense" readings I've talked about above. The reason is that I'm not sure how I can take notes effectively when I do something like the above. It may also be harder to motivate myself to re-read a paper I've already skimmed, because I've given away the punchline to myself and the novelty factor is gone.

I've also written an answer on [email protected] , which I think might be relevant to this question.

Note that I am not asking how to read a paper. This has been addressed in several previous questions already. I am only asking how long it should take a typical junior scientist to read one, so I can benchmark myself and see if I am slower or faster than is usual.

Community's user avatar

4 Answers 4

As you have alluded to, there are many ways to "read" a paper and the first question to straighten out is for what type of information are you reading a specific paper. A beginner's mistake is to believe you need to read from the first to the last letter of everything you find. This way you never get anywhere and it is the beginning of the learning curve for undergraduates.

If you are surveying a field, you skim through by reading the titles first of all just to spot the ones of interest. This reading takes much less time than to actually find the title. Once you are past this you may take on the abstracts to weed out the ones that sounded right but were off topic. This will take a few minutes per paper. The next step is to read the parts that are of interest to you. Are your summarizing a field then conclusions and the discussion may be what you focus on. Maybe your summarizing methodology then those chapters are of interest. In any case, you will read parts of the paper that are mostly relevant to what you are trying to find out. This may take a on the order of hours, sometimes less per paper.

Sometimes you need to spend time on papers to understand the nitty gritty details. I spent 4 days reading three papers to understand the details. I needed to write down equations and try to see the missing steps between the paper equations to understand the derivations etc. This type of reading is not what you normally do but it certainly happens.

So in the end, what you will learn through your PhD is to hone your skills to be able to focus on the details you really need from any paper. It is rare that one reads one paper at a time, usually it is a collection of papers and one often has to return to check on details that you either have forgotten, or may have missed, or, in fact, the author has missed. The need to go into the smallest detail of a paper depends on what you need to get out of the paper and with time (continuing through your professional life) you will improve on these skills through additional reading.

Peter Jansson's user avatar

Though not an expert in reading journals, I would like to provide my point of view. Actually the answer for the question can be made from different perspectives. We read journal articles for multiple reasons:

In each of these situations the way you read the article would be different along with the time taken to read the article. If I am looking for a particular protocol, lets say, genotyping a polymorphism, I will scan the abstract for the polymorphism name and then I will head straight to the methods to see the genotyping procedure. So this could be as quick as a 30 second search, provided you know for what and where to look.

Lets say, I am looking for data about the prevalence of a particular disease in a specific population. So again, I will scan the abstract for the disease name and the methodology, will head straight to the tables to seen the number of participants diseased out of the total cohort, which also could be a 30 second search provided I know where to look.

Lets say I am attending a journal club and I have the article with me. I will read the abstract, then the conclusion, then glance the tables and figures, then will see the techniques they used just to make sure I know about the techniques before I attend the journal club. It will not be always feasible for the presenter to explain in detail about the techniques in the presentation. This should take around 10 minutes plus the time you spend on search unknown techniques.

Lastly, If am going to present an article in journal club, surely I will be reading the article again and again till I have a thorough understanding for my presentation. Every time I read, I will find a new information in the article. Here the time required will be based on your familiarity with the field and the complexity of the article. It could be hours or days. So according to me its the knowledge about the structure of the journal in your field of expertise matters, than the time taken to read the article.

The time factor depends on what is your objective is from reading the article.

recursion.ninja's user avatar

So this IS my field, but I can obviously only answer for me.

The first thing to say is that this is going to change a lot during your career, and different people will take different amounts of time to reach various milestones.

Assuming we are not taking about a "quick skim", I'd say I now take about an hour to read you average Mol/Sys bio paper. This would be well enough to lead an informal discussion of it (which is how we do our journal clubs), if not quite present a full stand-at-the-front and deliver journal club.

When I started my PhD (17 years ago), reading to the same level would take me a full day. I guess when I started my postdoc it was somewhere in between. Maybe 2-3 hours.

Obviously, if its a paper I need to know back-to-front, inside out, and be able to disect every possible problem or highlight, then its going to take me longer, but I probably wouldn't do that all at once. I'd probably do my 1-hour read, and then come back to particular bits, as and when needed.

Because of my dylexia and dyspraxia, I've never been much of a skimmer. I think this was a benefit when I was a PhD/postdoc, as I was always more aware of the subtleties of papers, and all of the caveats, and methodological quirks of the papers in my field. Now I am faculty, its a real problem, as I just can't keep up with everything I need to be aware of. So different career stages also require different strategies.

Ian Sudbery's user avatar

Firstly, I agree with the first response, that , in very well written terms the question has pointed out tthe diverse ways to attack a diligently written paper. In fact I would define a typical paper to be read as a slight variation of the same.

I usually let the first read be to grasp the salient points from the paper, and also define:

If the paper does not satisfy the above, it is as good as read.

If the paper satisfies any of these two conditions or both, I would prefer, rather than assigning a long private time for it to be read ( which I have found can absorb as much time as i have) to tackle as under

Let me know your thoughts on the strategy

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This scientist read a paper every day for 899 days. Here’s what she learned

Olivia Rissland says reading a different paper every day has made her a better scientist.

Natalie Parletta

how much time to read a scientific paper

Olivia Rissland says that her reading habits have made her "a much more well-rounded scientist". Credit: Olivia Rissland

8 September 2020

how much time to read a scientific paper

Olivia Rissland

Olivia Rissland says that her reading habits have made her "a much more well-rounded scientist".

Keeping up with the research literature is a must for any scientist, but it tends to slip down the priority list when there’s grant-writing, fieldwork, publishing, teaching, and analysis to be done.

“Reading papers definitely falls under that ‘important and not urgent’ category of activities,” says molecular biologist Olivia Rissland, who runs a lab focussed on understanding gene regulation at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

“It’s easy to say, ‘I’ll read that paper tomorrow,’ and then, how much time goes by and you haven’t read a single paper?”

On 1 January 2018, Rissland set herself the task of reading one paper per day, every day, as “a bit of a lark”.

“I thought, ‘Let’s see how long I can keep this up’, but within a month I was hooked,” she says. “I loved the exercise of learning something new every day and seeing how that opened up ideas in my own research.”

By June 17 2020, Rissland announced on Twitter that not only had she had kept the habit up, but it’s benefited her career in ways she couldn’t have predicted.

“As of today, I have read 899 papers in 899 days,” she tweeted. “I never would have imagined 2.5 years ago how much I would learn through this and how this would make me a better scientist and human."


As well as keeping up with new research in her own field, Rissland now reads more broadly. She’s been pursing literature about the ethical and professional considerations in research, for example, such as the effects of systematic bias on promotion and hiring decisions.

Reading a paper from end to end has also helped her appreciate the nuances that would be missed by skimming the key findings of a paper, such as learning about different scientific methods.

“It’s made me a much more well-rounded scientist,” she says.

While Rissland says there’s no particular strategy guiding her choice of paper, she has a ‘to read’ folder on her computer, which currently has around 250 papers in it. “On most days I choose ones that strike my fancy,” she says.

“Sometimes there are topics that I want to take deep dives into, so I might focus on a topic for a few weeks. But I think part of the fun for me is just to read something that I want to, as opposed to something I have to.”

Rissland says her favourite paper of all time is “ The Mundanity of Excellence ”, a sociology paper about what makes swimmers excel. She says this paper “transformed how I approach science and running a lab”.


Rissland made the habit stick by holding herself accountable – she shares insights from her daily reads on her lab’s Slack channel, ‘365 papers’.

She also keeps a record of the papers she reads on a Google sheet, which has a line for every day of the year.

“Adding each citation to the Google sheet gives me enough joy and a feeling of accomplishment that it keeps me going,” she says.

Rissland doesn’t cut herself any slack – peer review or sourcing references for her own publications don’t count towards her daily tally. And if she misses one day, or ten, such as when she goes on a family hiking trip, she makes up for it later.

“Dedicating time to reading papers is more important to my lab’s success than answering e-mails,” she says. “I don’t necessarily work more than anyone else, I just make sure I dedicate a set amount of time to reading every day. Rather than being a burden, most of the time this is a high point of my day.”

Rissland’s advice to other researchers who want to take up the challenge is to figure out a routine that’s realistic for them – especially students who read more slowly – such as dedicating 20 or 30 minutes a day to reading.

She also recommends setting realistic guidelines early on, which can help solidify the habit. “The hard ‘structure’ of it keeps me honest,” she says.

Above all, says Rissland, it has to be enjoyable.

“Most of the time it’s the nicest part of my day because I’m actually being a scientist, reading other people’s beautiful research,” she says. “I usually come away feeling really inspired and full of ideas.”

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Art of reading a journal article: Methodically and effectively

Rv subramanyam.

Department of Oral Pathology, Drs Sudha and Nageswara Rao Siddhartha Institute of Dental Sciences, Gannavaram, Andhra Pradesh, India


Reading scientific literature is mandatory for researchers and clinicians. With an overflow of medical and dental journals, it is essential to develop a method to choose and read the right articles.

To outline a logical and orderly approach to reading a scientific manuscript. By breaking down the task into smaller, step-by-step components, one should be able to attain the skills to read a scientific article with ease.

The reader should begin by reading the title, abstract and conclusions first. If a decision is made to read the entire article, the key elements of the article can be perused in a systematic manner effectively and efficiently. A cogent and organized method is presented to read articles published in scientific journals.


One can read and appreciate a scientific manuscript if a systematic approach is followed in a simple and logical manner.


“ We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge .” John Naisbitt

It has become essential for the clinicians, researchers, and students to read articles from scientific journals. This is not only to keep abreast of progress in the speciality concerned but also to be aware of current trends in providing optimum healthcare to the patients. Reading scientific literature is a must for students interested in research, for choosing their topics and carrying out their experiments. Scientific literature in that field will help one understand what has already been discovered and what questions remain unanswered and thus help in designing one's research project. Sackett (1981)[ 1 ] and Durbin (2009)[ 2 ] suggested various reasons why most of us read journal articles and some of these are listed in Table 1 .

Common reasons for reading journal articles

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The scientific literature is burgeoning at an exponential rate. Between 1978 and 1985, nearly 272,344 articles were published annually and listed in Medline. Between 1986 and 1993, this number reached 344,303 articles per year, and between 1994 and 2001, the figure has grown to 398,778 articles per year.[ 3 ] To be updated with current knowledge, a physician practicing general medicine has to read 17 articles a day, 365 days a year.[ 4 ]

In spite of the internet rapidly gaining a strong foothold as a quick source of obtaining information, reading journal articles, whether from print or electronic media, still remains the most common way of acquiring new information for most of us.[ 2 ] Newspaper reports or novels can be read in an insouciant manner, but reading research reports and scientific articles requires concentration and meticulous approach. At present, there are 1312 dentistry journals listed in Pubmed.[ 5 ] How can one choose an article, read it purposefully, effectively, and systematically? The aim of this article is to provide an answer to this question by presenting an efficient and methodical approach to a scientific manuscript. However, the reader is informed that this paper is mainly intended for the amateur reader unaccustomed to scientific literature and not for the professional interested in critical appraisal of journal articles.


Different types of papers are published in medical and dental journals. One should be aware of each kind; especially, when one is looking for a specific type of an article. Table 2 gives different categories of papers published in journals.

Types of articles published in a journal

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In general, scientific literature can be primary or secondary. Reports of original research form the “primary literature”, the “core” of scientific publications. These are the articles written to present findings on new scientific discoveries or describe earlier work to acknowledge it and place new findings in the proper perspective. “Secondary literature” includes review articles, books, editorials, practice guidelines, and other forms of publication in which original research information is reviewed.[ 6 ] An article published in a peer-reviewed journal is more valued than one which is not.

An original research article should consist of the following headings: Structured abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion (IMRAD) and may be Randomized Control Trial (RCT), Controlled Clinical Trial (CCT), Experiment, Survey, and Case-control or Cohort study. Reviews could be non-systematic (narrative) or systematic. A narrative review is a broad overview of a topic without any specific question, more or less an update, and qualitative summary. On the other hand, a systematic review typically addresses a specific question about a topic, details the methods by which papers were identified in the literature, uses predetermined criteria for selection of papers to be included in the review, and qualitatively evaluates them. A meta-analysis is a type of systematic review in which numeric results of several separate studies are statistically combined to determine the outcome of a specific research question.[ 7 – 9 ] Some are invited reviews, requested by the Editor, from an expert in a particular field of study.

A case study is a report of a single clinical case, whereas, a case series is a description of a number of such cases. Case reports and case series are description of disease (s) generally considered rare or report of heretofore unknown or unusual findings in a well-recognized condition, unique procedure, imaging technique, diagnostic test, or treatment method. Technical notes are description of new, innovative techniques, or modifications to existing procedures. A pictorial essay is a teaching article with images and legends but has limited text. Commentary is a short article on an author's personal opinion of a specific topic and could be controversial. An editorial, written by the editor of the journal or invited, can be perspective (about articles published in that particular issue) or persuasive (arguing a specific point of view). Other articles published in a journal include letters to the editor, book reviews, conference proceedings and abstracts, and abstracts from other journals.[ 10 ]


Not all research articles published are excellent, and it is pragmatic to decide if the quality of the study warrants reading of the manuscript. The first step for a reader is to choose a right article for reading, depending on one's individual requirement. The next step is to read the selected article methodically and efficiently.[ 2 ] A simple decision-making flowchart is depicted in [ Figure 1 ], which helps one to decide the type of article to select. This flowchart is meant for one who has a specific intent of choosing a particular type of article and not for one who intends to browse through a journal.

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Schematic flowchart of the first step in choosing an article to read


“ There is an art of reading, as well as an art of thinking, and an art of writing .” Clarence Day

At first glance, a journal article might appear intimidating for some or confusing for others with its tables and graphs. Reading a research article can be a frustrating experience, especially for the one who has not mastered the art of reading scientific literature. Just like there is a method to extract a tooth or prepare a cavity, one can also learn to read research articles by following a systematic approach. Most scientific articles are organized as follows:[ 2 , 11 ]

Review articles do not usually follow the above pattern, unless they are systematic reviews or meta-analysis. The cardinal rule is: Never start reading an article from the beginning to the end. It is better to begin by identifying the conclusions of the study by reading the title and the abstract.[ 12 ] If the article does not have an abstract, read the conclusions or the summary at the end of the article first. After reading the abstract or conclusions, if the reader deems it is interesting or useful, then the entire article can be read [ Figure 2 ].

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Decision-making flowchart to decide whether to read the chosen article or not

Like the title of a movie which attracts a filmgoer, the title of the article is the one which attracts a reader in the first place. A good title will inform the potential reader a great deal about the study to decide whether to go ahead with the paper or dismiss it. Most readers prefer titles that are descriptive and self-explanatory without having to look at the entire article to know what it is all about.[ 2 ] For example, the paper entitled “Microwave processing – A blessing for pathologists” gives an idea about the article in general to the reader. But there is no indication in the title whether it is a review article on microwave processing or an original research. If the title had been “Comparison of Microwave with Conventional Tissue Processing on quality of histological sections”, even the insouciant reader would have a better understanding of the content of the paper.

Abstract helps us determine whether we should read the entire article or not. In fact, most journals provide abstract free of cost online allowing us to decide whether we need to purchase the entire article. Most scientific journals now have a structured abstract with separate subheadings like introduction (background or hypothesis), methods, results and conclusions making it easy for a reader to identify important parts of the study quickly.[ 13 ] Moreover, there is usually a restriction about the number of words that can be included in an abstract. This makes the abstract concise enough for one to read rapidly.

The abstract can be read in a systematic way by answering certain fundamental questions like what was the study about, why and how was the study conducted, the results and their inferences. The reader should make a note of any questions that were raised while reading the abstract and be sure that answers have been found after reading the entire article.[ 12 ]

Reading the entire article

Once the reader has decided to read the entire article, one can begin with the introduction.

The purpose of the introduction is to provide the rationale for conducting the study. This section usually starts with existing knowledge and previous research of the topic under consideration. Typically, this section concludes with identification of gaps in the literature and how these gaps stimulated the researcher to design a new study.[ 12 ] A good introduction should provide proper background for the study. The aims and objectives are usually mentioned at the end of the introduction. The reader should also determine whether a research hypothesis (study hypothesis) was stated and later check whether it was answered under the discussion.


This section gives the technical details of how the experiments were carried out. In most of the research articles, all details are rarely included but there should be enough information to understand how the study was carried out.[ 12 ] Information about the number of subjects included in the study and their categorization, sampling methods, the inclusion criteria (who can be in) and exclusion criteria (who cannot be in) and the variables chosen can be derived by reading this section. The reader should get acquainted with the procedures and equipment used for data collection and find out whether they were appropriate.


In this section, the researchers give details about the data collected, either in the form of figures, tables and/or graphs. Ideally, interpretation of data should not be reported in this section, though statistical analyses are presented. The reader should meticulously go through this segment of the manuscript and find out whether the results were reliable (same results over time) and valid (measure what it is supposed to measure). An important aspect is to check if all the subjects present in the beginning of the study were accounted for at the end of the study. If the answer is no, the reader should check whether any explanation was provided.

Results that were statistically significant and results that were not, must be identified. One should also observe whether a correct statistical test was employed for analysis and was the level of significance appropriate for the study. To appreciate the choice of a statistical test, one requires an understanding of the hypothesis being tested.[ 14 , 15 ] Table 3 provides a list of commonly used statistical tests used in scientific publications. Description and interpretation of these tests is beyond the scope of this paper. It is wise to remember the following advice: It is not only important to know whether a difference or association is statistically significant but also appreciate whether it is large or substantial enough to be useful clinically.[ 16 ] In other words, what is statistically significant may not be clinically significant.

Basic statistics commonly used in scientific publications

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This is the most important section of the article where the research questions are answered and the meaning of analysis and interpretation of the data are presented. Usually the study results are compared with other studies, explaining in what aspects they were different or similar. Ideally, no new data should be presented under discussion and no information from other sections should be repeated.[ 2 ] In addition, this section also discusses the various strengths and limitations/shortcomings of the study, providing suggestions about areas that need additional research.

The meaning of results and their analyses, new theories or hypotheses, limitations of the study, explanation of differences and similarities with other comparable studies, and suggestions for future research are offered in this section. It is important to remember that the discussions are the authors’ interpretations and opinions and not necessarily facts.


Though conclusion part had been read at the beginning, it is prudent to read it again at the end to confirm whether what we had inferred initially is correct. If the conclusion had not made sense earlier, it may make sense after having perused through the entire article. Sometimes, the study conclusions are included in the discussion section and may not be easy to locate. The questions that can be asked under various sub-headings of an original research paper are presented as a simple questionnaire in Table 4 . It is assumed that one who is using this questionnaire has read and analyzed the abstract and then decided to read the entire article. This questionnaire does not critically analyze a scientific article. However, answers to these questions provide a systematic approach to obtain a broad overview of the manuscript, especially to a novice. If one who is new to reading articles, writing answers to these questions and taking notes will help in understanding most aspects of a research article.

Questionnaire for original research articles

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“ Let us read with method, and propose to ourselves an end to which our studies may point. The use of reading is to aid us in thinking .” Edward Gibbon

It has become mandatory to read scientific literature to be well-informed of ever-expanding information and/or for better diagnosis, prognosis and therapy. Since there is an abundance of journals and articles, it is critical to develop a modus operandi for achieving a rapid, purposeful, effective and useful method to read these manuscripts. A simple but efficient and logical approach to scientific literature has been presented here for choosing articles and reading them systematically and effectively for a better understanding.

Source of Support: Nil.

Conflict of Interest: None declared.


Research Process

Reading a Scientific Article

Library Tutorial

Additional Resources

General Dictionaries

Attempting to read a scientific or scholarly research article for the first time may seem overwhelming and confusing. This guide details how to read a scientific article step-by-step. First, you should not approach a scientific article like a textbook— reading from beginning to end of the chapter or book without pause for reflection or criticism. Additionally, it is highly recommended that you highlight and take notes as you move through the article. Taking notes will keep you focused on the task at hand and help you work towards comprehension of the entire article.

Reading a Scholarly Article Workshop

This workshop presents effective techniques for reading and understanding a scholarly article, as well as locating definitions related to your research topic.

Subject-Specific Dictionaries

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How to Read a Scientific Paper

A clock on a stack of books to show how to read a scientific paper with limited time

To read a scientific paper effectively, you should focus on the results and ensure that you draw your own conclusions from the data and assess whether this agrees with the authors’ conclusions. You should also check that the methods are appropriate and make sense. Spend time attending journal clubs and reading online peer reviews of articles to help hone your critical analysis skills and make reading papers easier and quicker.

Keeping up with the scientific literature in your field of interest is incredibly important. It keeps you informed about what is happening in your field and helps shape and guide your experimental plans. But do you really know how to read a scientific paper, and can you do it effectively and efficiently?

Let’s face it, in our results-driven world, reading new scientific papers often falls by the wayside because we just don’t have the time! And when you do find some reading time, it’s tempting not to read the entire article and just focus on the abstract and conclusions sections.

But reading a scientific paper properly doesn’t need to take hours of your time. We’ll show you how to read a scientific paper effectively, what you can and can’t skim, and give you a checklist of key points to look for when reading a paper to make sure you get the most out of your time.

Step 1: Read the Title and Abstract

The title and abstract will give you an overview of the paper’s key points. Most importantly, it will indicate if you should continue and read the rest of the paper. The abstract is often able to view before purchasing or downloading an article, so it can save time and money to read this before committing to the full paper.

Checklist: What to Look for in the Abstract

Step 2: Skip the Introduction

The introduction is mostly background, and if you are already familiar with the literature, you can scan through or skip this as you probably know it all anyway. You can always return to the introduction if you have time after reading the meatier parts of the paper.

Checklist: What to Look for in the Introduction

Step 3: Scan the Methods

Don’t get too bogged down in the methods unless you are researching a new product or technique. Unless the paper details a particularly novel method, just scan through. However, don’t completely ignore the methods section, as the methods used will help you determine the validity of the results.

You should aim to match the methods with the results to understand what has been done. This should be done when reviewing the figures rather than reading the methods section in isolation.

A Note about qPCR Data

If the data is qPCR, take the time to look even more carefully at the methods. According to the MIQE guidelines , the authors need to explain the nucleic acid purification method, yields, and purities, which kits they used, how they determined the efficiency of their assays, and how many replicates they did. There are a lot of factors that can influence qPCR data, and if the paper is leaving out some of the information, you can’t make accurate conclusions from the data.

Checklist: What to Look for in the Methods Section

Step 4: Focus on the Figures

If you want to read a scientific paper effectively, the results section is where you should spend most of your time. This is because the results are the meat of the paper, without which the paper has no purpose.

How you “read” the results is important because while the text is good to read, it is just a description of the results by the author. The author may say that the protein expression levels changed significantly, but you need to look at the results and confirm the change really was significant.

While we hope that authors don’t exaggerate their results, it can be easy to manipulate figures to make them seem more astonishing than they are. We’d also hope this sort of thing would be picked up during editorial and peer review, but peer review can be a flawed process !

Don’t forget any supplementary figures and tables. Just because they are supplementary doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Some of the most important (but not exciting) results are often found here.

We’re not advocating you avoid reading the text of the results section; you certainly should. Just don’t take the authors’ word as gospel. The saying “a picture speaks a thousand words” really is true. Your job is to make sure they match what the author is saying.

And as we mentioned above, read the methods alongside the results and match the method to each figure and table, so you are sure what was done.

A Note About Figure Manipulation

Unfortunately, figure manipulation can be a problem in scientific articles, and while the peer-review process should detect instances of inappropriate manipulation, sometimes things are missed.

And what do we mean about inappropriate manipulation? Not all figure and image manipulation is wrong. Sometimes a western blot needs more brightness or contrast to see the results clearly. This is fine if it is applied to the whole image, but not if it is selectively applied to particular areas. Sometimes there is real intent to deceive, with cases of images swapped, cropped, touched up, or repeated. 

Graphs are particularly susceptible to image manipulation, with alterations to graphs changing how the data appears and a reader’s interpretation of a graph. Not starting the axis at 0 can make small differences appear bigger, or vice versa if a scale is too large on the axis. So make sure you pay careful attention to graphs and check the axes (yes, that’s the plural of axis) are appropriate (Figure 1). You should also check if graphs have error bars, and if so, what are they, and is that appropriate?

How to Read a Scientific Paper

Statistics can scare many biologists, but it’s important to look at the statistical test and determine if the method is appropriate for the data. Also, be wary of blindly following p-values . You may find situations when an author says something is significant because the statistical test shows a significant p-value, but you can see from the data that it doesn’t look significant. Statistics are not infallible and can be fairly easily manipulated .

Checklist: What to Look for When Reviewing Results

Step 5: Tackle the discussion

The discussion is a great place to determine if you’ve understood the results and the overall message of the paper. It is worth spending more time on the discussion than the introduction as it molds the paper’s results into a story and helps you visualize where they fit in with the overall picture. You should again be wary of authors overinflating their work’s importance and use your judgment to determine if their assertions about what they’ve shown match yours.

One good way to summarize the results of a paper and show how they fit with the wider literature is to sketch out the overall conclusions and how it fits with the current landscape. For example, if the article talks about a specific signaling pathway step, sketch out the pathway with the findings from the paper included. This can help to see the bigger picture, highlight, ensure you understand the impact of the paper, and highlight any unanswered questions.

Test Yourself

A useful exercise when learning how to read a scientific paper (when you have the time!) is to black out the abstract, read the paper and then write an abstract. Then compare the paper’s abstract to the one you wrote. This will demonstrate whether or not you are picking up the paper’s most important point and take-home message.

Checklist: What to Look For in the Discussion Section

Step 6: File it Away

Spending a little time filing your read papers away now can save you A LOT of time in the future (e.g., when writing your own papers or thesis). Use a reference management system and ensure that the entry includes:

Ways to Sharpen Your Critical Analysis Skills

While this article should get you off to a good start, like any muscle, your critical analysis skills need regular workouts to get bigger and better. But how can you hone these skills?

Attend Journal Clubs

Your critical thinking skills benefit dramatically from outside input. This is why journal clubs are so valuable. If your department runs a regular journal club, make sure you attend. If they don’t, set one up. Hearing the views of others can help hone your own critical thinking and allow you to see things from other perspectives. For help and advice on preparing and presenting a journal club session, read our ultimate guide to journal clubs .

Read Online Reviews

Whether in the comments section of the article published online, on a preprint server, or on sites such as PubPeer and Retraction Watch , spend time digesting the views of others. But make sure you apply the same critical analysis skill to these comments and reviews.

These sites can be a useful tool to highlight errors or manipulation you may have missed, but taking these reviews and comments at face value is just as problematic as taking the author’s conclusions as truth. What biases might these reviews have that affect their view? Do you agree with what they say and why?

Final Thoughts on How to Read A Scientific Paper

Reading a scientific paper requires a methodical approach and a critical (but not negative) mindset to ensure that you fully understand what the paper shows. 

Reading a paper can seem daunting, and it can be time-consuming if you go in unprepared. However, the process is quicker and smoother once you know how to approach a paper, including what you can and can’t skim. If you don’t have enough time, you can still read a paper effectively without reading the entire paper. Figure 2 highlights what sections can be skimmed and which sections need more of your attention.

Figure 1. How to read a scientific paper: where to spend your time.

Another tip for being more productive (and it’s better for the environment) is to read your papers on-screen . It’ll save time scrambling through a stack of papers and manually filing them away.

Do you have any tips on how to read a scientific paper? Let us know in the comments below.

Want an on-hand checklist to help you analyze papers efficiently despite being busy with research? Download our free article summary and checklist template.

For more tips on keeping track of the scientific literature, head to the Bitesize Bio Managing the Scientific Literature Hub .

Originally published November 20, 2013. Updated and revised September 2022.

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Methods can often be important, to judge whether to even trust the results!

The most important is to save all articles that possibly can be interesting in your reference managing system, and classify them with a relevant tag, so that they can be easily found later. Many articles you don’t realize how important they might be until later on. Then you’ll need to find that article you only read the abstract of six months earlier.

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