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 various fields. Each sub-field in science has its own language.  For example, being literate in cancer biology does not mean you are literate in neuroscience (I am highly literate in only one of these). Luckily, many terms in one field of science help us understand other areas of research.  It’s all about your focus:

Resolution vs. Field of View in Biology

Here’s an analogy from one of the most commonly used tools in biology:  microscopy. 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, which  lets us see super small structures.

Left: a high resolution capture lets us see structural detail, while Right: A low res, large field of view lets us see the big picture.

 For example, a super high-resolution technique, electron microscopy, helps us see the structure of mitochondria, the “powerhouse of the cell,” quite easily.

But how do we know mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell?  Just because we can see something as small as a mitochondria under a microscope doesn’t mean we know what it is or 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 expands the field of view. Having a large field of view helps us understand complex systems like cell biology, the brain, or even species within an ecosystem.

Review Articles vs. Primary Literature vs. Textbooks

Google and Wikipedia are your friends.  Most scientific papers will drop key terms without much explanation.  It’s okay if you have no clue what those words mean – a quick search will fix that!  Building your own key terms glossary for science helps you get a handle on something as large as an entire field of research.

Review articles summarize the recent key findings for a question within a particular research field.  These articles are particularly useful if you need a basic understanding of something with a large field of view. 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.

Primary literature is science straight from the horse’s mouth. In other words, the same lab that performs the research and experiments writes about them in great detail.  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. Neuroscientists would love to ask endless questions about the brain, for example, but alas, we are few and mortal. As such, primary literature is typically narrow and targeted, but delivers a cutting edge understanding of the science within.  Most people go to Pubmed to find these articles.

Textbooks are a great resource for the highly curious, but are dense, expensive, and hard to get if you can’t access a library or they are in high demand.  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.

Finding research articles can often be the hardest part of all of this.  Some tips for finding scientific papers:

  1. If you attend a research institution, your library probably has access to most journals.
  2. Researchers are allowed to share their publications to those who request them: I recommend ResearchGate for contacting them on this subject, but you can always reach out to them directly (Many labs and scientists are on Twitter!)
  3. Google Scholar is your next best bet, or simply searching [Article title] + .pdf using your search engine.
  4. For finding new articles of interest and organizing old ones, I recommend Meta, Mendeley, or Endnote.  For health-related questions, has a great database on various nutritional supplements.

*All images sourced from, and modified by Connor Wander.

Peer edited by Justine Grabiec.

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About Connor Wander

Connor is a third year PhD candidate in UNC Pharmacology. Alongside writing for SWAC, Connor also hosts a science podcast: Straight from a Scientist (, through which he hopes to narrow the gap between scientists and the public in relaxed, but accurate scientific dialogue. As a co-mentored student between the Cohen and Song Labs at UNC, Connor studies GABAergic neural networks in Alzheimer’s Disease. His scientific interests include the interactions between the environment, genetics, and behavior in mood disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. Outside of the lab, Connor enjoys hobbies such as graphic design, gaming, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, paintball and caring for his bearded dragon and Madagascar Giant Day geckos. Connor also manages the Cohen lab website and a Giant day Gecko care blog.

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