Improving Science Literacy: How to Read Scientific Papers

Science literacy is the ability to read English words in a new language- the language of science.  You might measure science literacy by being conversant in varying levels of detail.  But, each sub-field in science has it’s own language.  Being literate in cancer biology does not mean you are literate in neuroscience.  (I am literate in only one of these).  With science, there is often a great deal of prerequisite learning required for literacy in a particular subject that doesn’t immediately seem important.

Reading scientific papers can be daunting, but we’re here to smooth your transition.  Stay posted for our article breakdown sections that define science terms, and digest them even further into graphic guides of articles written by our own guests.

Resolution vs field of view

Here’s an analogy about microscopy: one of the most commonly used tools in biology.  Scientists use microscopes to image tissues, cells, or even pieces of cells.  The smallest distance that the microscope can image, or resolve, is called the resolution.  In science, it’s often very helpful to look at things under a high-resolution microscope.  As resolution gets higher, the minimum size of observable objects gets smaller.  High resolution lets us see super small structures.  A super high-resolution technique, electron microscopy helps us to see the structure of mitochondria, the “powerhouse of the cell” quite easily. We can also image synapses using this technique.

But how do we know mitochondria are the “powerhouse of the cell?”.  Just because we can see something under a microscope doesn’t mean we know what it does.  Nor does it help us understand how the cell works.  A “missing the forest through the trees” kind of problem.   To understand how one piece fits into the bigger puzzle, we have to first zoom out to see the whole cell.  This is field of view.  Having a large field of view helps us study complex systems like cell biology,  a complex system like the brain, or even a species within an ecosystem.

Review Articles vs Primary Literature vs Textbooks

Primary literature is science straight from the horse’s mouth.  The same lab that performs the experiments writes about them.  This gives the highest resolution, but a limited field of view.  Scientists have only so many hours in the day, and only so many dollars of funding.  Most of us would love to ask “all the questions” about the brain, but alas, we are few and mortal.  All labs have to have a research focus: a simple, pointed question about the disease, mechanism, or system they are studying.  While these articles are invaluable, they will never give you the whole picture.  That’s where review articles come in handy.

Review articles summarize the recent key findings within a particular research field.  They are typically written by well respected, prominent authors of primary literature within that field.  These articles are a great read if you need a basic understanding of something.  They typically define all of the language used to describe the system. Once you understand the basics of the system, you can delve deeper. Make sure to choose an article that is fairly recent if you’re reading anything life-sciences related.

Textbooks are a great resource for the highly curious, but are dense, expensive, and hard to get.  They also take far longer to write, publish, and print than a review article or primary research publication, meaning the information printed could be obsolete by the time you read it.

Google is your friend.  I won’t bother with a glossary on here on SFS: it would take you longer to find a word within a glossary than to simply websearc or Wikipedia said term.  These descriptions are usually very accurate and detailed.

Take Action:

For true beginners, youtube is a phenomenal resource.  There are countless videos on the basics of cell biology that can help you:

For a more entertaining, less educational version:

Read or watch something new!  For illustrations that break down how neurons and other brain cell types function, head to the science basics page (under construction!).  Next, start with a system or disease you’re interested in, and read any posts here on the topic or find some review articles on your own.


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