Hi to all. Nice to meet you. A junior in premed here. In my Human Structure and Function class our final is an essay on an assigned first-line research paper. I have noted that my assigned paper is used as part of the curriculum at TAMU. Of course, part of the challenge is to be able to research this paper enough to understand it and demonstrate an understanding. I feel overwhelmed. How does one start this? I feel absolutely lost. My paper is on “MRI/MRS assessment of in vivo murine cardiac metabolism, morphology, and function at physiological heart rates”. OMG. ANY advice…please.

Now, start with the abstract. Read through it a couple of times to figure out what the point of the paper is.
Then look at the tables or charts. Read the legends carefully and see if you can tell what they’re about.
Then read the introduction. Again, this will give you a sense of where they’re going and what the key concepts are.
Start there and then check back in with us with questions, which I’ll promptly pass on to someone smarter than I am.

THANK YOU. I will follow your advice/instructs religiously! THANK YOU.

Two additional tactics:
1) Google the keywords - frequently, you will find website that “explain” aspects in a more layperson format. That may just be the ticket to form a nucleus of understanding for you to build upon.
2) In the endsection there will a listing of citations the author(s) used for the paper. Sift through them to see if there are any good background papers for you to read again building up your own level of understanding.

Thank you! I appreciate all the advice. Still a difficult paper to understand but I am making great headway! Just having a plan makes a difference!

The key to understanding a scientific paper is to understand that it is an extended argument.

In other words, if you go through the figures–each figure usually explains one experiment–you go through a thought process of coming up with an argument and then trying to anticipate objections and trying to prove the objections correct (yep–see below).

A really excellent and elegant paper that earns other scientists’ admiration is one that makes a very convincing argument by laying out a case, experiment by experiment, for a point of view about how the world works. (Usually a very narrow part of the world–but still, this is what science is about.)

You can get distracted by looking just at the text because sometimes scientists aren’t as good at writing as they should be. This is why most scientists actually let the figures be their guide in reading a paper–it allows them to break the argument up into its component parts. Each experiment is one step in the argument. So if you think about the experiments step by step you will get a sense of the case that is being made. This is just like solving a crime, like so:

A: Hypothesis: that Mr Smith killed Mr Jones.

Step 1. Was Mr Smith in a position to kill Mr Jones–that is, was he in the right place at the right time?

By eyewitness accounts and Mr Smith’s own admission, we know that Mr. Jones and Mr Smith knew each other and were both in the same bar until 2 am. (These are the facts going into the argument. They are the baseline–the background literature.) Figure 1 consists of pathology slides showing the state of Mr. Jones’ tissues at time he was found dead, and showing control tissues that demonstrate that Mr. Jones’ tissues are most like control tissues of bodies we know have been dead from 5-10 hours prior to sampling. Mr Jones’ body was found at 9:30 am the next day.


But Mr Smith and Mr Jones were friends.

Figure 2: Mr Smith and Mr Jones had more and more arguments over time (bar graph showing more arguments/week, with exponential increase in last week of Mr Jones’ life).

Counterargument: But those arguments weren’t about stuff that someone would kill someone over.

Figure 3: It is a known fact of the case that Mr Smith was upset with Mr Jones over money. So, is this something that people get killed over? Figure 3 is a survey of homicides by people known to the victim over the past 10 years and issues precipitating the murder. Figure 3 shows that in 22% of cases in this retrospective review, money was the only or the primary issue in the conflict between murderer and victim.

Counterargument: But Mr Smith says that he went home after being at the bar.

Figure 3: This one is easier: Mr. Smith’s credit card receipt shows that he went to a gas station at 4:30 am that morning, so he was not asleep at that time. Not only that but it shows his very distinctive signature. Figure 3 shows 5 samples of Mr Smith’s signature compared to the signature on the credit card, showing that these are quite similar.

And so on. You’ve watched enough CSI probably to get the picture.

In a clearly written scientific paper, the counterarguments are actually spelled out; in others, they are simply inferred, but you should still consider each experiment to be the answer to a possible counterargument about the overall argument being made.

In the philosophy of science this is called “falsification”: someone who is good at doing science (or making a diagnosis) thinks at each step, “How do I prove myself wrong?” If you can’t prove yourself wrong, then you’re actually closer to proving yourself right than if you try to just prove yourself right. That is, you should think about how each experiment “falsifies” the hypothesis–how it is an effort to prove the argument wrong. In a successful paper, it turns out that the scientists can’t prove themselves wrong–so they are happy to find themselves being right. Science is therefore not a process of finding truth but of finding less and less wrong theories.

Once you get a sense of the case being made, then think about: what is the key experiment–the one that is really the center of the case? (The fingerprints on the gun.) What is the advance being made in understanding here? (What’s known after this paper that wasn’t known before?) What are the weaknesses in the paper’s argument? (For this you will probably need help, but if you’ve done the rest of the work then you can go talk to people intelligently about this.)

Good luck! This is a really important skill set to acquire.

Best regards


So, looking at the abstract only, the argument of this paper is: mice can be a model for assessing cardiac function via MRI/MRS technology. (The view of the world here is that mice and humans are similar enough, and this technology is fine-tuned enough, that future research using this model will be valid.)

And presumably the experiments each set out to prove the counterarguments: “that view of the world is wrong in x, y, z ways” and then each experiment fails to prove these counterarguments.



Sincerely my thanks, Joe. Excellent advice and guidance. I have decided I am going to start reading at least one research paper each week from here on to work on this skill. I am printing all the information from this thread. This is part of the self-sufficiency necessary for this line of work.

Hi Amy,
Joe has really nailed the keys to reading scientific literature. Most of the time, when I am journal reading, I read just the abstracts and move on unless the article has direct application to my practice.
Following reading the abstract, I read the introduction. Here, in a well written papar, the authors will try to put their work in perspective. As Dave said, look up the key words and do a little background work.
In the Material and Methods section, they should outline how they designed the experiement and how they conducted the research. Here, you may need some help to understand exactly how the techniques worked. You may need to research how a technique works so that you understand exactly what the authors did.
In the results, look at the graphs and diagrams. Look at how they presented their results. Read the captions under the tables and see if you can figure out if they accomplished what they set out to do in the introduction.
Finally read the conclusion and discussion. This section tells how the authors felt they accomplished their goals? Are there other ways to measure what they did other the the method that they used. Pick up a biostats book and see if their results were statistically significant. Sometimes the research is that the authors did not accomplish what they set out to do but found something else.
Finally, you put the paper in perspective for yourself and your needs. This may be the hardest part of your assignment or it may be the easiest. Your critique should include addressing the specifics of the above. Look carefully at how they worded their thesis. Sometimes people put a paper out just to have something out there but fail to actually prove their thesis or contribute to the body of knowledge.
Again, practice, practice makes for learning how to evaluate scientific papers. You goal to read at least one paper a week is an excellent start. I will also challenge you to pick up a journal like Nature (my favorite) or Cell and read the abstracts of every article in each issue. Keep a journal of the abstracts that you read and enter a one or two sentence summary of each of the abstracts. For your weekly paper read, enter a paragraph about the thesis, materials and methods and conclusions. Be sure to make a list of the authors and their institutions. This gives you a good idea of where major research is being done. In the end, you will develop a good grasp of evaluating literature.
Joe’s information as usual is excellent and very practical. He is truly a gifted human being.

I feel very fortunate to have access to this forum and all it offers through each individual.
Any advice regarding any aspect of personal development toward this goal is so appreciated. Every single day I learn so much but most of all I learn an awareness of how much I do NOT know.
Thank you all very much.