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How to Read a Scientific Paper

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2020

With the Covid-19 pandemic and the reams of research scientists are producing in trying to understand it, many people are reading scientific research papers for the first time. Long-time science writer Carl Zimmer, who estimates he’s read tens of thousands of them in his career, provides some useful guidance in how to read them.

When you read through a scientific paper, it’s important to maintain a healthy skepticism. The ongoing flood of papers that have yet to be peer-reviewed — known as preprints — includes a lot of weak research and misleading claims. Some are withdrawn by the authors. Many will never make it into a journal. But some of them are earning sensational headlines before burning out in obscurity.

In April, for example, a team of Stanford researchers published a preprint in which they asserted that the fatality rate of Covid-19 was far lower than other experts estimated. When Andrew Gelman, a Columbia University statistician, read their preprint, he was so angry he publicly demanded an apology.

“We wasted time and effort discussing this paper whose main selling point was some numbers that were essentially the product of a statistical error,” he wrote on his blog.

Developing research-reading skills can also be helpful for activists attempting to drive change using data about policing & racism in America. (Just be aware that recent scientific studies have shown the limitations of facts in changing human minds.)