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Demystifying Research Papers (Part I)

Research papers in science are often hard to understand because it’s very easy to get lost in the sea of technical words, acronyms, and esoteric techniques. It would be very difficult—if not impossible—for example, for me to understand a research paper in physics because my background is in biology, not in physics. Even in biology, there are many topics I am not familiar with, and I would need to invest some time to understand papers on those topics. However, it’s possible to get at least some idea about what is going on if we know more about the standard format of research articles and invest some time familiarizing ourselves with the unfamiliar terms and techniques. In two essays, I will explain how we can achieve that: I will go over the general structure of a research paper this essay and will talk more about the backbone of a research article in a second essay: the Results section.
Manifesto of Confusion: Anna Ravliuc
Abstract: Abstract briefly tells us what to expect from an article: it’s a microcosm of a research paper. It not only introduces us to the topic—albeit very briefly—but also describes the key questions the study aims to explore and the gist of those findings. Usually, there is a general statement that highlights the significance of those findings.

The problem with abstracts is that for someone who is not at all familiar with the topic, it may fail to make much sense. Usually, we can get a sense about the importance of the project by reading the significance, but it’s a grey area because it usually gives us the best case scenario or the ultimate goal. Let me explain why with an example.

Suppose researchers find a new drug that kills cancer cells in mice, and at the end of the abstract, they claim that it may be possible to cure cancer in patients with the drug. The authors’ claim is not false, but it gives the best case scenario, something that has not been tested. It’s very possible that the drug may fail to kill any cancer cells in humans, for example. Often in media or popular science magazines, we see claims based on this best case scenario, but that—as I just explained—can be misleading. That is why scientists usually look at the actual data, contained in the Results section, to form their own opinion.

Introduction: Now we are into the actual paper. The introduction usually has three parts. In the first part, the authors try to familiarize the readers with the topic and the previous relevant researches in greater depth than the abstract. The authors then lay out the questions they are investigating and why (usually because no one had done those experiments or had investigated those questions). Finally, they introduce the tool and techniques they are going to use to address those questions. Scientists working in the same field often skip this section and go for the Results section because they already have the necessary background to understand the questions and the techniques. For people who are unfamiliar with the field, however, a careful reading of the introduction can be extremely helpful. If I am reading a paper on a topic I am not familiar with, I read the introductions carefully because it not only gives some background but also helps me understand the rationale behind the experiments. I also look up a few additional articles if I am not familiar with the techniques used in the paper (more on this in the Reference section).

Materials and Methods: This section contains technical details on how the experiments were carried out: the protocol for the experiments as well as how the datasets were analyzed. Unless the paper describes a new technique, usually this section is not necessary to understand a research paper. This section, however, is very important for the scientists who either want to replicate the findings or want to use similar experiments for their own research.

Results: A primary research article is based on this section—without this section, the article has to value or purpose. In this section, the scientists show the results from the experiments they had done to find answers to their questions. This section contains relevant images, graphs, tables, and statistics to help the readers understand the data from those experiments. The section is usually structured in a logical fashion so that the readers can follow the rationale behind each experiment. I will elaborate more on this section in a separate essay.

Discussion: Here, the scientists discuss whether or not they had succeeded in finding the answers to their questions. They then talk about the potential shortcomings of their experiments. Finally, they explain the significance of their research and what experiments need to be done to address the shortcomings or expand their findings. Once more, we need to be careful here because the significance often describes the ultimate goal (like curing cancer in the example I gave). Indeed, scientists often ignore this section because they can find the flaws themselves and can draw their conclusions. However, I think reading this section helps us understand the context of the research better, especially if we don’t know much about the field.

References: This section contains all the references used in the paper. For the most part, any general statement made in a paper needs to be cited and that is why the list can be quite long. I can’t, for example, say “General readers often find research articles confusing” without providing evidence that supports that claim in a research paper. Usually, the evidence comes from previous studies and collectively, these studies form a platform for the current project. This section is also useful if we want to expand our knowledge in a particular field because most classic papers from that field, as well as good review articles, are usually cited here.

And that’s it: that’s how a research article is usually structured beyond the title. In the next article, I will elaborate more on the Results section and hope together, these two articles will encourage us to get facts from the original sources and help us draw our own conclusions.

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