Critical Reading in the Natural Sciences
by Jann Vendetti, Integrative Biology
Journal articles and scientific papers are the medium through which biologists relay their research to their colleagues. Scientific articles are most often presented in a standard format, beginning with an abstract, followed by an introduction, then methods, results, and finally conclusions. A good paper presents the author’s topic, data, and interpretations clearly and logically.
The reader’s challenge is to comprehend the paper’s main ideas despite new vocabulary, unfamiliar tone, and often complex subject matter. This requires active and critical reading. The following strategies suggest how to facilitate active and critical reading while minimizing frustration.
Strategies of Critical Readers
- Identify the paper’s major conclusions from the title and abstract. Keep its theme(s) in mind while reading the entire paper.
- Look up unfamiliar words as you encounter them. Rewrite them in your own words if necessary, and use that definition when you encounter them later in the paper.
- Learn from headings within the introduction, methods, results, and conclusion. These may be summations of major themes of the paper or signify topic shifts.
- Tolerate confusion or ambiguity during your first read. Try not to expect the complexities of the paper to be clarified immediately. Your confusion can generate excellent questions that may be answered during your second read; if not, it may provide material for discussion or further investigation.
- Don’t be put off by complicated methods. In most cases you don’t have to understand all details of the paper’s experiments or analyses to make a sufficient synopsis of its main conclusions.
- Summarize. As you reach the end of a section of interest, ask yourself if you could explain it to someone else. If yes, great! If not, give it another read.
- Ask yourself questions throughout the paper. This is the “critical” component of critical reading. Is evidence well-supported? Presented clearly? What are the study’s broader implications?
- Read the paper a second or third time, highlighting key points. Check these points with your summaries and the author’s abstract. Does your interpretation of the paper match theirs?
Habits of Critical Readers
Effective habits, both of mind and of practice, are crucial to developing critical reading skills. A simple routine that works for you can make all the difference. The following are some suggestions.
- Use a marking system. This is a note-taking/making scheme that you use consistently to mark-up or take notes on the paper that you are reading. It may include written notes in the paper’s margin, short summaries at the end of sections, stars/arrows/circles/numbers at key passages, color-coded highlights, or Post-Its that designate main ideas, confusing sentences, evidence, unfamiliar words, etc.
- Read without distraction. Critical reading is best done when you are focused and comfortable, but not too comfortable. This might be at a library study cubicle, a coffee shop, or wherever you find you work well and are alert.