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How to Read Research Papers and Ask Questions

Research holds great significance for several reasons. It contributes to the expansion of human knowledge, provides a solid foundation for decision-making, and has the potential to drive social, economic, and cultural progress.

Reading research papers is an essential skill for students to develop. An associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Kansas, Dr. Jennifer Raff, explained how to read and understand a scientific article. She introduced 11 practical steps for reading and understanding a scientific paper:

  1. Begin by reading the introduction, not the abstract.

  2. Identify the big question.

  3. Summarize the background in five sentences or less.

  4. Identify the specific questions.

  5. Identify the approach.

  6. Read the methods section.

  7. Read the results section.

  8. Determine whether the results answer the specific questions.

  9. Read the conclusion/discussion/interpretation section.

  10. Go back to the beginning and read the abstract.

  11. Find out what other researchers say about the paper.

Here are some extra helpful tips for reading a research paper:

  • Don't forget to evaluate the credibility and reliability of the paper. Well-established journals tend to have a rigorous peer-review process and high editorial standards.

  • Sometimes you might find some research papers that challenge your existing beliefs or contradict prior knowledge. You need to approach the paper with an open mind and avoid initial judgments or biases. Be curious to explore the evidence and arguments in the paper.

  • Check the publication date of the paper. Depending on your field, it might be important to prioritize recent sources to make sure that you are reading the most up-to-date information.

Questioning what you read is also as important as learning how to read. Here are the questions you can ask yourself to evaluate the content and think critically:

  • What is the significance or relevance of the research topic?

  • What is the methodology used in the study? Is it appropriate for addressing the research question?

  • Are there any underlying assumptions or preconceived notions evident in the paper? Do these assumptions align with established scientific principles or could they indicate a biased perspective?

  • Are the data and evidence presented reliable and valid? Is the sample size sufficient?

  • Are there any potential biases or conflicts of interest that could influence the results?

  • How do the results contribute to the existing body of knowledge in the field?

  • Does the paper acknowledge any limitations or potential biases in the study design or data collection methods?

  • Are there any alternative interpretations or explanations for the findings?

  • Are the conclusions supported by the evidence presented?

  • Are there any conflicts of interest disclosed by the authors? For example, do they have financial or professional affiliations that could influence their findings or conclusions?

  • Has the research received criticism or sparked controversy within the scientific community? If so, what are the arguments and counterarguments presented?

If you can email the author or ask them questions directly, here is a guide for drafting your question:

Step 1. Determine the purpose of your question.

Are you seeking clarification on a particular point, looking for additional information, or challenging a concept?

Step 2. Be specific.

You should avoid asking broad questions. Instead, you need to focus on a particular aspect of the paper or ask for clarification on a specific statement. So you can formulate a question that is clear, specific, and directly related to the paper.

Step 3. Consider the author’s expertise.

The author is likely an expert in their field. So you can frame your question in a way that acknowledges their expertise while expressing your genuine curiosity and seeking insights.

Step 4. Review and revise your question.

Before you email the author, you need to make sure that your question is clear, concise and coherent.

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