- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
How to Read a Paper
By Apoorva Mandavilli / 2 minute read
You know that journalistic concept of an inverted pyramid, where the most important information comes first? Scientific papers are the opposite. They begin with a long and rambling preamble that lays out the context of the work and the real-world implications (where you might see that far-fetched call-out for a cancer cure, perhaps), go through the methods, and only toward the end get to the results and discussion.
So you can go straight to the last section, often even the last few paragraphs of the discussion, to see what the paper is about. This is where editors make authors spell out how the work fits into the broader context of the field, and what the caveats are — that the sample size was small, for example, or that some crucial data were missing for some of the participants.
Scientists are experts at burying the lede, all the way at the end.
“All studies have them, and good researchers will not be reluctant to admit them or be defensive when you ask about them,” says the freelance writer Emily Anthes.
The abstract is like a microcosm of the paper, and here again, it’s often the last sentence that holds the nugget you’re looking for. Scientists are experts at burying the lede, all the way at the end.
Before you think about how to describe the paper’s findings, first decide whether it even merits coverage. When Virginia Hughes was the science editor at BuzzFeed News, her team covered a study only if the discovery was “really and truly newsworthy,” she says, as when a new species of ancestral humans was discovered through South African fossils, or scientists in China genetically engineered twin baby girls. The team rarely covered medical findings, she says, unless they were from a late-stage clinical trial, because of the potential harm from faulty research.
Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, says it’s important to pay attention to what the study’s findings mean in the real world: “There is a big difference between statistical significance and actual significance. A study might be rigorous, but even so, does any of it actually matter?” Reporters should also consider what evidence would need to exist to make the results relevant in the real world.