School makes it hard to imagine practical applications of most concepts, especially in science subjects. Witnessing action keeps students like us interested, but unfortunately, it can be hard to recreate techniques and phenomena in a classroom. This is why reading published papers is a great way to observe real life consequences of the details that are taught from high school textbooks. However, critically analyzing and understanding publications can be daunting; the amounts of text and sophisticated diagrams intimidate even the most curious audience. But let’s take the time to break down the process, because reliable papers are great wealths of information, and once understood, can be the spark for more questions, creativity, and motivation to discover.
1. Start by knowing where to start. Find a reliable collection of literature. PubMed is an excellent search engine that works with the National Center for Biological Information (NCBI) and it contains thousands of reputable papers covering various topics. So many of my college research projects were done through PubMed and the NCBI website. With such variety, search for a topic that you hold a genuine interest in! Lately, the hot topic of research on PubMed and NCBI is, of course, the novel Covid-19 virus, so I picked out a paper discussing the interactions between the coronavirus and platelets. Here are some other free reputable sources for biochemical and health research:
2. Confirm that the research is well-written and reliable. This is the most important yet overlooked step. You want to ensure that the authors are reliable experts, so find a paper with many citations. It shows that other researchers value the findings of this research and agree with the way it was presented. In a similar vein, choose a paper with many references listed at the end and look through those findings as well. Search up the authors and see what other types of papers they have published. Even the “methods” section should be robust and easily replicable, avoiding small sample sizes and vagueness.
3. Take a read through the abstract. The abstract is like a movie trailer: it gives a good peek at the objective of the paper and their intentions with the findings, but you will not be able to understand the entire story. The authors want to hook and hold the readers’ interest with the abstract, so it’s usually easy to digest and quite interesting. A good abstract will have the hypothesis, general overview of the methods, and content that is thought-provoking and honest. Again, choose a paper with an abstract that genuinely interests you.
4. Read the content of the paper, and practice the black box method. In our case, the black box method is essentially a tool to help intake complex concepts that would otherwise bog you down. For example, this article states that “SARS-CoV-2 and its Spike protein directly enhanced platelet activation such as platelet aggregation, PAC-1 binding, CD62P expression, α granule secretion, dense granule release, platelet spreading, and clot retraction in vitro...” (Zhang 2020) This is quite an information-dense phrase! The black box method would be to take note that PAC-1 binding, CD62P expression, and so on, are just concepts that enhance platelet activation. There’s no immediate need to understand what CD62P expression really is, how it becomes, or why it’s there. Simplify the paper by creating a black box around messy vocabulary words that are not the focus of the paper. In this paper, the authors found that the coronavirus creates a black box, and the black box is correlated with health consequences that this paper further explores.
5. Look through the diagrams and graphs separately from the paper. Usually, figures and graphs have elaborate captions, so focus solely on those rather than try to mentally tie the graphs with previous contents. Ask yourself what the diagrams are implying, and why the authors felt it important to include these. Graphs are meant to summarize information and make comparisons easier, so taking the time to deeply understand the figures will enhance your reading experience as well.
6. Annotate on a hard copy. The best way to make reading easier is to annotate and keep track of what you do and don’t understand. Highlight words you want to check out later, underline important correlations, asterisk further questions that you think of. The black box method works amazing with this step: you can take a note of all the concepts you want to look into later. If you are unable to obtain hardcopies, use apps such as Notability to write on the PDF pages. Improve your understanding by interacting with the words and figures. Lumen has some excellent tips on how to write useful annotations in all types of readings including those for publications.
7. If you use other people’s research or want to include it in something you present on your own, never ever forget to cite! Don’t worry about finding all the information for the citation because PubMed and other articles usually have a button for citations in all types of formats including APA, MLA, and more. Certain courses will require certain types of citations, so choose carefully. At the end of the example paper I included, you can find the references that the authors included. If you want further details on how to create solid works cited pages that are well organized, check out this incredibly detailed IRSC guide on formatting works cited pages!
Breaking down the paper into digestible pieces is the key to tackling scientific publications. They offer a glimpse into the unknown and the cutting edge with research that might not be well recognized to the general public. You get what you put into reading these scientific publications, so give it your all. Although it’s a little tricky to jump the hurdle and actually start, writing and thinking critically will help you learn faster. And just like exercise, reading publications gets easier and more enjoyable the more you work on it!
Zhang, Si et al. “SARS-CoV-2 binds platelet ACE2 to enhance thrombosis in COVID-19.” Journal of hematology & oncology vol. 13,1 120. 4 Sep. 2020, doi:10.1186/s13045-020-00954-7