Straight from the Source: Tips on How to Read Primary Research Articles

Posted by Sandra on 5/18/16 9:30 AM


Primary research articles are crucial to how science is shared and pushed forward. Familiarizing yourself with this type of literature is especially important for those interested in pursuing life science research. These articles detail the results of an original research study conducted by the authors and are almost always published in a peer-reviewed journal. This means that before the article can be published it is closely examined by experts in the field for credibility.

The information within your science textbooks is the result of research experiments most likely published in a peer-reviewed journal before becoming “common knowledge”. Typically, the articles are broken down into sections including an abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and references. Each section works differently to frame the research and provide the background, significance, and tools necessary for the experiments to be reproduced.

Often times, understanding these articles can be challenging as a lot of the techniques they use and articles they reference may be unfamiliar to you. It’s no doubt that reading primary articles requires some practice. I’ll show you how to get the most out of these articles, give some insight into article etiquette, and give tips on how to speed read articles once you get more familiar with them.

Start with the Authors and Abstract

For life science articles, the first author listed is the person who contributed most to the research within the article while the last author is usually the head of the lab. Therefore, these two authors are commonly the ones mentioned when giving the work credit. Know the authors! Not only because they deserve the recognition but also because professors will often mention a paper by it’s author and the journal in which it was published. It’s good to get into the habit of knowing the author, topic, and journal so you aren’t caught off guard when your professors start citing articles off the top of their heads. The abstract summarizes the whole article by giving why it’s important, what they did, and what the results were all in one paragraph. Reading only the abstract will give you an overview of the results but not enough information to follow how they came to those conclusions.

Next, Analyze the Figures

The figures show the results of the experiments. They are organized in a way that builds up to a story so the first figure is usually the main observation and the subsequent figures aim to understand that observation. Go through each figure in order and read the figure legends. They will give you a brief description of what was done and what to look at in the figure. Knowing how to read the figures is going to take practice and an understanding of the methods they used. The methods are written in a different section and most of them can be found with a quick Internet search for a basic understanding. Take the time to understand the figures, ask whether they did the proper controls or what could be some possible pitfalls to how they designed the experiment. Each course that I’ve taken involving the reading of primary literature was revolved around analysis of the figures. The professors want to see that you can critically think about the results and whether the authors are interpreting the data without bias. A more wordy explanation of the figures comes in the results section so if the figure legends aren’t giving enough detail for you should read this section as well.  


Next, Read the Discussion

Although the discussion section is usually presented last, it’s good to read this right after the figures. It will give you an in depth overview of the findings, how the results were interpreted, and what the discovery means for the future. Basically, a summary of the figures and what they mean. If you are a practiced reader I would say that just reading the discussion would be enough to understand what was done. Some authors may also discuss caveats to the work and say what more needs to be done to further contribute to their findings. When just beginning to read primary research it is helpful to read the discussion while referencing back to the figures.

Understanding these three parts of the article will be enough to get you through the class discussion but if you are trying to reproduce the experiments you should reference the methods section and any supplementary information that may be given. The supplementary information is important information that is not in the main article but still contributes to the understanding of the research.

Lastly, Read the Introduction

It sounds crazy but I recommend reading the introduction portion of the article last. The introduction gives the background and where the field was at during the time the research was conducted. This is usually where a lot of the references will be cited. For me going back and reading the introduction not only prevents me from being bias while I read the article but helps me understand what gaps the current experiments have filled.

The biggest thing to understand about science is that new things are being discovered all the time. Just because something is published doesn’t mean that it will hold true forever. It’s just where the field was at the time and new experiments with different tools can add to it or completely change our understanding. Therefore a true understanding of the research will require background knowledge and an understanding of the techniques that were used. Also, reproducibility is a huge factor. If the research that was done can not be done by another lab with the same tools then it’s not reproducible suggesting it may have been an artifact and not really what’s going on. Be skeptical when you start off reading an article and by the time you finish the authors should have convinced you that they have found something worthwhile.




Sandra was born in Seoul, South Korea into a military family. Although they moved around a lot her family settled stateside in Georgia where she attend Spelman College. Here she graduated summa cum laude with a major in biochemistry and minor in physics. As a junior she was awarded membership into the Phi Beta Kappa National Honors Society along with being an American Chemical Society Scholar and having an undergraduate research fellowship. As an undergrad she conducted research in an organic chemistry lab and spent her summers conducting research at Northwestern University and MIT.

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