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Reading a Scientific Article: Anatomy of a Scientific Article

An introduction to reading scientific, peer-reviewed articles

Anatomy of a Scientific Article

Location of article title in scientific article

Title

Titles written according to best practices help readers determine if the article offers the information being sought. Paying attention to an article title can help readers identify relevant articles and avoid those that don’t provide useful information. A best practice is to title an article such that readers can understand the general topic, article/study type, research question(s), and sometimes main findings.

For example, a good place to begin looking for information about the effectiveness of treatment X for condition Y in population Z are clinical trials. If there are many clinical trials conducted on the topic, then systematic reviews and meta-analyses will offer a combined look at treatment effectiveness. Thus, key words to look for in article titles would be: “A randomized controlled trial,” “A clinical trial,” A systematic review,” or “A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Title words indicating a different type of publication such as “case report,” “commentary,” “narrative review,” or “pilot study” cue perceptive readers that these are different and less relevant types of publications.

Location of author in scientific article

Author

Author lists can offer clues about the content of an article. Some authors are well known for being experts in a given field. While being an expert doesn’t guarantee a quality article, readers can be confident that content was influenced by a respected authority on a topic. Alternatively, some authors are well known for a singular point of view, personal agenda, or bias. Recognizing these authors doesn’t necessarily mean an article should be discarded, but readers can expect the article will be influenced by this view.

When scanning author lists, a good practice is to consider the number of authors. Most research is conducted by teams made up of members with disparate expertise to address complex issues and provide perspectives needed for a thorough and balanced approach. While there is no ideal number, there are limitations to what any single person can do. This means single author articles are less likely to contain the type of balanced analysis and writing that one might expect from an article authored by several.

Author degrees and institutional affiliations can also offer clues. Ideally, author training and experience should complement topic matter. Sometimes, articles may be written by a group authors with only clinical degrees (e.g., MDs, DCs, DOs). When reading this type of article, consider that the authors may not have specific scientific training and/or that a less balanced perspective might be present. Depending on the article topic, this might not be an issue. Sometimes, a lack of diversity in training and experience among authors can lead to a single viewpoint and unintentional bias, which is something to be aware of when reading.

Location of journal title in scientific article

Journal

One way of getting a sense of a journal’s reputation is the impact factor, a metric calculated to understand how often published articles are cited in other scientific literature. Journals with the highest impact factor (IF) tend to carry high reputations, such as the New England Journal of Medicine (IF, 70), Lancet (IF, 59), and the Journal of the American Medical Association (IF, 51). Most journals have impact factors less than 20. Remember: impact factor is only a single component of a journal’s reputation. Low-quality articles can be published in high impact factor journals and high-quality articles can be published in low impact-factor journals. 

Chiropractic is a relatively small healthcare profession with a limited scope. There are naturally fewer scientific articles and authors than for other professions. Journals also have different foci, leaving a limited number of journals focused on musculoskeletal and/or spinal health. For these reasons, most chiropractic relevant articles are published in journals with lower impact factors ranging from 1-3, such as:

• The Spine Journal (IF, 3)

Location of abstract in scientific article

Abstract

Abstracts are brief summaries of a research article. The general purpose of an abstract is to communicate a general understanding. Authors are required to write abstracts to exact requirements, which differ among scientific journals. Some abstracts are limited to less than 200 words, while others may include 350 or more. Lower abstract word limits allow less potential information.

Scientific journals also restrict the word count for articles. Often, authors are challenged with including needed details within word limits ranging from 2000-5000 or more. There is usually no method of summarizing a 2000-5000+ word article in a 200-400 word abstract without leaving out important information. If there was, then there would be no need for the article. Therefore, readers should beware abstracts because they often exclude important information. Many experienced readers use abstracts only to determine whether the article is one of interest. 

Location of introduction and background in scientific article

Introduction & Background

Most reading is accomplished by starting at the beginning and moving toward the end. News media, books, magazine articles are often read from beginning to end. But this may not be the best method for scientific articles. For example, consider Introduction/Background sections.

Most scientific articles begin with Introduction/Background sections. These sections introduce the topic and describe relevant aspects, guiding readers toward the purpose of the article. When familiar with the topic, and especially when searching for something other than background information, readers may wish only to scan the Introduction/Background section for new information. This can save time.

For example, if familiar with the topic, and most interested in article quality, experimental procedures, results, or understanding how study results compare with similar studies, the Methods, Results, and Discussions sections are the key places to focus.

Location of purpose statement in scientific article

Purpose Statement

One might think that a purpose statement might be communicated at the beginning of an article. But that isn’t the case for most scientific writing. Instead, purpose statements are usually located at the end of the Introduction/Background section. Why? Because Introduction/Background sections serve multiple roles. They orient readers to a topic, describe gaps in current knowledge, and offer rationale for conducting the research described in the article. These characteristics are designed to place the purpose of the research into proper context.

Understanding purpose can help readers think critically about whether the reasons for the study are justified and if the methods used are appropriate for answering the research question(s). The purpose statement is therefore a key place to look when reading a scientific article. Experienced readers, familiar with topical content, often look for this statement after reviewing the title, author list, and noting the journal. 

Location of methods in scientific article

Methods

Methods section describes how a study was conducted. Methods are designed to include many details necessary for determining how to interpret findings and judge the rigor, or quality, of a study. This section should be presented so clearly and with such detail that it could be replicated. Key information includes: how data was collected, how an intervention was applied and by whom, whether and/or how patients were randomly allocated, who was blinded, how patients were chosen, how diagnoses were made, and how outcomes were measured and analyzed, the study setting, etc.

This section usually describes any tests, experiments, or analyses done by the author to solve the problem presented in the introduction. Examples of methods include longitudinal studies (measuring something over time), laboratory or clinical experiments, analysis of research done on the topic, and qualitative studies (analyzing surveys or interviews from a specific group to learn about the topic).

Location of results and discussion in scientific article

Results & Discussion

Scientific articles will often have a section labeled “results” or “findings.” The Results section presents the data resulting from the research methods used by the study. This section often includes tables, charts, or other visualizations of the data. This data indicates the statistical significance of the results. 

The Discussion section contains analysis and interpretation of the data, explaining what conclusions can be drawn from the results. The results are examined in connection to the study’s purpose statement and the wider context outlined in the Introduction/Background. This is where the author(s) addresses how (or if) the evidence answers the study’s research questions, as well as how the results advance, contrast with, or clarify existing studies and dominant thinking in the field. The author(s) may also explain how the results may have implications for future studies or applications in the field through changes in policy or standard practice. 
 

Location of conclusion in scientific article

Conclusion

A scientific article will end with a conclusion. In some cases, the conclusion is part of the discussion section. Here is where the article summarizes the study’s findings, how those findings are significant, and how they contribute to the research on this topic. The author(s) may also discuss how these results relate to other scholarship or encourage other researchers to extend or follow up on their work. Where appropriate, the author(s) may make direct recommendations about potential research questions for future studies. 

Location of references in scientific article

References

At the end of a scientific article, you will find a list of the works cited by the author(s). This list will generally be quite long and may include journal articles, books, and other sources. References are publications consulted by the author(s) when developing their research. Each reference listed there corresponds to one or more citation provided in the body of the paper. The citations may be included within the body text, as footnotes at the bottom of the page, or endnotes at the end of the article. 

When you look at the references, make a note of the publication date of the references. Are they recent?  Does this list include historic or current sources? Both? If you are familiar with the topic, do you recognize any of the authors listed? You can also use this list of references to find additional scholarly articles and books written on the same subject through authors or common keywords in titles.