How to Read a Research Journal

Sometimes people will tell you to “cite your evidence” or something similar. If you’ve never had formal training in research, it can be daunting to learn how to read journals.

Technical publications are used to demonstrate research in a particular field. Why do people bother?

Two reasons: peer review to validate findings and increasing the overall knowledge of the global scientific community.

Whenever a study or survey results in discovering facts which were not previously known to be true, the study must be reproduced to validate the findings. Studies should be reproducible in a manner that always prevents bias from creeping in. The typical standard for this is that all experiments are to be double-blind and placebo controlled whenever possible.

Double-blind experiments require that neither the experimenter nor the subject of experimentation is influenced by any biasing throughout the experiment. This often requires that the experimenter is unaware of the distribution of the control group. While this may not always be required in most types of engineering, it is especially important in the medical field. Human biasing and subjective measurements may cloud study results and lead to erroneously reported findings. These erroneous results may not be caught until the paper is submitted for peer review. As a result, the entire study will be considered flawed and the paper, if published, may be retracted.

Placebo-controlled studies are studies that utilize a control group to compare the test group with. The control group is maintained unaware of their status as the control group. This prevents any subjective bias from creeping into studies. Additionally, it ensures that unexpected environmental influences may be generally accounted for across the control and test groups.

If a study has met the standards of reproducibility, environmental variation accountability, and subjective measurement correction, it will then be submitted for peer-review. Papers are sent out for review by members of the journal or academic organization for comment and approval. This ensures that the study is both accurate and of high quality. This process may result in either acceptance or revision of the study prior to being published in a technical journal. In the event that the study is not found to be factual or sufficiently rigorous, the paper will be rejected or returned for revision. Through this process, the scientific community is self-regulating with regards to quality and accuracy.

Meta-analyses are reviews of a large volume of studies. The purpose of a meta-analysis is to compensate for a smaller sample volume than would normally be used to harvest raw data from. This allows extrapolation of an overall guiding trend based on a similar set of studies being congregated together for an accurate analysis. Through a meta-analysis, studies which may indicate non-conventional results can be accounted for by comparing them against similar studies to achieve a better understood truth.

Meta-analyses allow for situations such as where a small study that has been reproduced several times may see that one reproduction has outlier results as a result of unaccounted for contamination of a test material. Performing a meta-analysis of all studies of this type may show that the outlier study can be safely discounted due to some type of environmental variation that skewed the data.

Literature reviews critically examine papers. These papers may not include studies. Instead, literature reviews allow for experts or students in a given field to provide feedback regarding what another published author has written. By conducting literature reviews, novices in the field are exposed to a wide array of research. Literature reviews are a common method to train students how to write papers.

Reading technical journals promotes a greater understanding of modern research in both industry and academia. Both academic and industrial research facilities encourage their researchers to publish their findings frequently. This not only improves the prestige of the institution; it allows for low-cost validation of findings. Others benefit from reading technical journals through reading about cutting edge discoveries. Additionally, the works cited page of any given paper allows for further exploration into the topic being discussed in the paper. By compiling citation lists, some databases allow the viewing of frequently cited papers. This allows for users to easily access influential papers in their field.

When selecting a paper to read, one should first consider the source. Some sources are more credible than others. Generally anything published in major journals such as IEEE, ASME, or other national group journals should be regarded as credible. Personal blogs, Wikipedia, and obscure journals with few external connections should be avoided.Once a source has been identified, consideration should be made regarding the credentials of the author. Undergraduate summer research will be less rigorous than a PhD dissertation.

Once the credibility of the source and author have been verified, the abstract is the next topic to consider.

Paper abstracts provide an overall view of the topic being discussed. Abstracts may not include the results of the study or analysis being conducted. Some journals only provide abstracts to the public. Instead of providing the full article, journals restrict the full texts to paid accounts. As a result, it may quickly become expensive to access a multitude of journal articles for a large analysis.

Any study that uses an experiment should have a method section. This section provides sufficient information to reproduce the experiment or study. This section should include any expected environmental variations that may have influenced the experiment. As experiments vary wildly from discipline to discipline and industry to industry, there is no standard layout.

Studies should also have a results section. This section provides the raw data provided from experiments conducted using the methods outlined in the paper. Some interpretation may be provided in this section. Any unexpected results should also be included. Studies and papers both have a conclusion section. This section summarizes the meta-analysis, literature review, or experimental results in question. Conclusions tie the various points made throughout the paper together for easy consumption by the reader.

The final section of any paper are the references. These follow a predefined format such as ASME, APA, or Chicago citation style. Proper use of references prevents plagiarism. Additionally, references allow for readers to easily verify statements made throughout the paper. An additional use of references is to provide the reader with additional resources to study to gain a better understanding of the material.