Sunday, July 22, 2012

Breaking down a research article

Everyone does it. It’s almost never formally taught. It’s hard to master, especially at the beginning. Some people struggle with it their whole lives.

Did you guess what I’m talking about?

Reading a research article! (If you were thinking of something else, you’re probably at the wrong blog.)

Reading research articles is an integral part of being a scientist. However, there is rarely a formal instruction for this vital skill.

Fortunately, some educators are working to remedy this problem. A trio of scientists/education researchers developed the CREATE method for reading papers: Consider, Read, Elucidate the hypotheses, Analyze and interpret the data, and Think of the next Experiment. (http://www.teachcreate.org/ )

The brilliance of CREATE is that it breaks an article into its different sections, making the paper less intimidating.

Consider: Start with the Introduction. Find and define all the words you don’t know. (If this seems too tedious, reward each new definition with a gummi bear or a cute thing from this list, http://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/the-cutest-things-that-ever-happened/.)

Read: Next up, the Materials/Methods and Results sections. The number one beginner mistake is reading the text and ignoring the figures. Read the figures. I repeat, read the figures!* Figure out what each figure panel represents.

Identify all of the different experiments in the Materials and Methods section. If you’re artistic, draw cartoons of the physical experiments so that you really understand them. (If you’re not, find a starving artist. Feed him/her the extra gummi bears in exchange for cartoons).

*In fact, many scientists only read the figures when they look at a paper. 

Elucidate the Hypotheses: Research articles emphasize one conclusion, but are usually composites of a few experiments. This is similar to the way a pile of clothes scraps can be quilted together into some greater design.

Figure out the hypothesis behind each experiment, and  connect each hypothesis with its figure.

Analyze and interpret the data: Ask yourself, what conclusions would I draw from the data? What claims would I make? Then read the Discussion section to if the authors thought interpreted their data in the same way you did.

Connect the main points from each figure. If you’re not exhausted by this point, you can even create another concept map of the findings from each figure.

Think of the next experiment: Warning: A side effect of reading an article is the production of strong opinions such as what the authors should have done differently or what they should do next. The last CREATE step will probably require no effort on your part.

If all else fails and you still haven’t read your article, tell people that you’ve downloaded it and it’s on your reading list.

(If you want to get meta, try the CREATE method on the original paper, http://www.genetics.org/content/176/3/1381.full.html.)

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