How Non-Scientist Can Read And Discern A Scientific Paper
Let’s address the elephant in the room, COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus. The coronavirus outbreak is all over the news and has society scared. World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are keeping people up-to-date, separating facts from fiction. For those who aren’t scientists in the field of infectious diseases, understanding what is going on can lead you on a Google search that will yield all sorts of results. Scientific research papers have all the information you need to know, but putting all the pieces together can feel like a maze.
Want to learn for yourself what scientists are doing to put an end to the coronavirus? Here is a step-by-step guide on how non-scientists can read and understand a scientific paper using the study from the Journal of Autoimmunity, The deadly coronaviruses: The 2003 SARS pandemic and the 2020 novel coronavirus epidemic in China as an example.
Read the introduction, not the abstract
At the beginning of all scientific research papers is a dense paragraph labeled as “abstract,” which states the purpose of the paper and the main conclusion. The introduction of a scientific paper is like any other introduction to a piece of literature. It eases you into what you are about to read with a “hook” to pique your interest. The abstract can be misleading at times, and many suggest that you skip reading the abstract first and save it until you have read the entire paper in full.
What is the question researchers are asking?
Before you go any further, jot down what the big question researchers are asking that you’ve gathered so far in the introduction. In the paper, The Deadly Coronaviruses, researchers state, “Our purpose of this review is to provide a brief summary of the epidemiology and history of SARS, as well as the lessons learned.” The paper is asking the same question the rest of the world is, what can we do to stop the current outbreak? Continuing on, you’ll see that they are also trying to find out preventative measures to take to avoid a world-wide pandemic like this from happening again.
How do the authors plan on answering their questions?
As you continue reading the scientific paper, you’ll come to a point where you’ll see how this team of researchers plan on answering their questions stated in the introduction. While the document confirms that since the SARS outbreak in 2002, there is no vaccine for coronavirus. That explains one of the questions researchers were asking, but what about the matter regarding preventative measures to take? Section three, a historical review of the epidemiology of SARS and how it was contained, goes through six effective control measures that helped win the war against SARS:
- Large medical teams and lots of supplies
- The use of fever clinics
- Concentrating all infected with SARS to designated hospital wards
- Health care workers received training on how to handle those with SARS
- Reduced person-to-person transmission
- Lastly, timely and accurate information about the status of the outbreak guided the population on how to stay safe.
The paper goes into much detail about each of these points, and before the conclusion, sections 12 and 13 puts into a plan of action should another coronavirus occur.
Verify the results displayed as figures, graphs, diagrams, and tables
Cited the scientific paper are figures and tables to paint a clearer picture of what the data is trying to tell you. To maintain a good reading pace without sacrificing comprehension, stop at the paragraph that cites one of these three. Find the page where that is referenced and review the data first. Then, go back and reread the section that explains what information lies within that table or graph. Verify that the information you read is the same information you see visually. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Read the conclusion and abstract
After you’ve thoroughly read the paper the entire way through and understand all the data, it is time to see what the authors concluded from their research. You don’t have to agree with the conclusion if you think the data doesn’t fit. Ask yourself more questions and do another scholarly search to see if other studies asking the same question came to the same conclusion. If so, then you know that the paper isn’t biased, and it is scientifically proven. You’re not done reading yet! Go back and read the abstract on the first page of the document. Verify that the information you’ve reviewed matches what is in the abstract. It will make much more sense now that you have further context behind the research.
Where to find COVID-19 studies
When it comes to being informed about a health pandemic such as the coronavirus, always go to the most credible sources. Visit the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention websites for the most up to date and accurate information. Should you’d like to read a scientific study and learn more about the disease beyond what these two organizations provide, search Google Scholar for research papers rather than pulling up news articles that cite those studies. Here are a few more COVID-19 studies to try your new scientific paper reading skills:
- Chinese studies link quarantines with coronavirus mutations that may make it more ‘insidious.’
- Detection of Covid-19 in Children in Early January 2020 in Wuhan, China.
- Laboratory testing for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in suspected human cases.
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