Now that you are reading primary articles you'll
find that even though the jargon and format may feel intimidating
at first, you'll soon get used to both as you learn more about the
subject and read more papers on related topics. Also, you'll have
more questions--some about content or technique and others about how
the work was done.
In the next few weeks,you'll be asked to practice different
aspects of writing critiques, and you might find it helpful to refer
to this guide and the one about experimental design.
Most primary articles begin
with an abstract which
summarizes the major points of the study (what was asked, what was
done, what was learned). If the subject is new to you, the abstract
may be hard to understand because it doesn't explain much. It sometimes
helps to just scan it to see if it's even close to what you want to
The introduction is usually helpful because
it sets out the rationale for this study by telling you three things:
--the general topic the paper addresses
--previous work that led to the question asked in
this study (citations to studies included in the bibliography are
given, but few details of that work are mentioned)
--the question(s) the study you are reading is
designed to address
The first time you read the paper you might want to
skip from the introduction to the discussion to get a quick idea
about what they concluded.
The methods section may look a bit intimidating
because it often has lots of technical details, so at first, glaze out
the details and focus on two things:
--An overall picture of the experimental design.
Sometimes this information is set out more clearly in the introduction
or the abstract, but it's important for you to step back from the
details and figure out why they designed the study as they did (more
about this in the handout on experimental design).
--Details about each step of the experiment (some
of these--like how they chose their subjects and how many subjects
they studied and over what period of time--will be important to understand
right away; others--like what brand of spectrophotometer they used--are
more detail than you need to worry about).
The results section shows the results of tests
described in the methods section. It shouldn't have much in the way
of conclusions. What it will have is tables, graphs, or diagrams. The
text of the results discusses some of what is in those figures, but
you'll need to look closely at the tables and graphs to really understand
the results (we'll help with this).
The next section is generally called discussion
or conclusions. That's where the authors remind you of the original
question(s) they were asking and address how well they think their data
answered those questions. They may refer to other studies which help
explain some of what they found or expected to find and didn't. They
may speculate in this section about what their results might mean and
what additional kinds of work they believe needs to be done and why.
The final section is the bibliography. This
is very useful as you're getting into a new topic. It tells you who
else is working in the field, what work was done earlier that led
to this study, how some of the techniques were developed,
etc. Eventually you'll find it hard to read a copy of a paper that
leaves off the bibliography, so be sure always to include it when you duplicate a paper to read.