Scientific papers: a reader’s guide


Han Nelson, Editor-in-Chief

Scientific papers are a crucial, albeit misunderstood part of forming an informed opinion. Unfortunately, learning how to read scientific papers is not a part of the public-school curriculum, so many don’t yet know how to properly read a scientific paper. For some, this means that they don’t read any scientific papers, and for others, it leads to unintentional misuse of papers. While there is a lot to scientific papers, understanding their basic structure can help for responsible consumption of media, opening an entire new medium to them. 

Types of Papers 

There are many types of papers in the scientific literature, and knowing their purposes is key to understanding their applications. For scientific research, there are four basic types of designs. 

A descriptive research design is one in which the researcher merely describes something. This includes case studies (studies describing one case), naturalistic observations, and surveys. Descriptive research does not aim to explain any results. 

A correlational research design attempts to draw inferences from data which is not controlled by the researcher. The main type of correlational research are observational studies, where the researcher either compares groups of data to each other or compares groups of data to themselves over time. 

Experimental research designs adjust independent variables to measure their effects on dependent variables or lack thereof. They include field and controlled experiments. 

A review research design would involve the researcher summarizing evidence related to a predetermined topic. Many types of reviews exist within the scientific literature, including literature reviews and systematic reviews, among others. 

In a few words, descriptive research collects data, correlational research analyzes data to make inferences, experimental research tests inferences, and review research explains and combines data/inferences. 


Not all scientific papers are created equal. Distinguishing between a reputable science journal and quackery can be exceedingly difficult, especially for a layperson. Fortunately, there is a tool called the master journal list, which you can use to decide whether to trust the paper as reliable.  


The vast majority of scientific papers follow a structure of five parts: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. A helpful reminder is to remember the acronym AIMRaD. An abstract is simply a brief summary of the paper. It is important to note that as a summary, an abstract is not a reliable source of information. The second part of a scientific paper is the introduction, which gives the reader background information on the subject and states the aim of the paper.  

The Methods section has the where, when, and how the study was done. It also explains the materials used and/or who were in the study groups. The exact heading will depend on the study, but it will probably be labeled with something like ‘Methods’ or ‘Methods and Materials’. 

The Results section of a scientific paper should explain what the study found. Was the hypothesis true?  

The Discussion section of a scientific paper attempts to take the results a step further. What do the results imply? Does this fit with the other research done on the topic? What research should be done in the future?

While this overview on scientific papers is far from exhaustive, remembering these things should help you on your journey to be an informed knower.