Science and Law
18th February 2014

The Busy Litigator’s Guide to Reading a Scientific Paper

Are you continually frustrated by complex and conflicting scientific studies? The good news is, it’s easy to understand scientific literature if you approach it in the right way. With an effective strategy, you can glean key information from a scientific paper and strengthen your case.

The Busy Litigator’s Guide to Reading a Scientific Paper

Are you continually frustrated by complex and conflicting scientific studies? The good news is, it’s easy to understand scientific literature if you approach it in the right way. With an effective strategy, you can glean key information from a scientific paper and strengthen your case.

The following resources will help you effectively read and better understand scientific papers:

In this article, BMJ.com (formerly British Medical Journal) offers specific suggestions for reading different types of research papers including the following: papers that go beyond numbers, papers that report drug trials, statistics for non-statisticians, getting your bearings (deciding what the paper is about), assessing the methodological quality of papers, and reading papers that summarize other papers (systematic reviews and meta-analysis).

This article discusses the essential steps to evaluating scientific publications. Interestingly, the article points out that authors do not always use terms correctly. For example, the word “significance” is overused because positive results are more likely to get published.

This article by Rice University breaks the process down into five steps:

  1. Skim the article and identify its structure. Most journals employ the IMRAD structure: an abstract followed by Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. The article describes the features of each section. The ability to recognize the conventional features of a scientific article helps you to comprehend its content.
  2. Distinguish main points. A scientific paper contains many indicators of the author’s main point; you just need to know where to look for them. Indicators include key words and phrases.
  3. Generate questions and be aware of your understanding. In this section, the article identifies questions readers should ask themselves while reading a paper to better understand its content.
  4. Draw inferences. Not everything that you learn from an article is stated explicitly. Research has shown that readers who actively draw inferences are better able to understand and recall information.
  5. Take notes as you read. The act of taking notes improves recall and comprehension. The paper provides a template for taking notes.

Understanding scientific literature is critical to preparing a legal case involving complex scientific topics. Before tackling your next scientific paper, read the above articles and use the tips they offer. You’ll find reading scientific literature less frustrating and more productive.

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