Lessons on Reading Physics Journal Articles
Professional Development - Tips to Build Your Career
Lessons on Reading Physics Journal Articles
Kendra Redmond, Editor
Half an hour until class and only a three-page journal article to read. No problem, right?
Well, let’s just say that when the professor asked for a summary of the article I had just read (twice), I had nothing to offer. First lesson learned: journal articles are not light reading.
In the years since that day, I’ve read and written stories about hundreds of physics, astronomy, and materials science journal articles. In hopes of making your journal article reading experience a little less painful, here are a few more lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Prepare for an existential crisis.
I’m joking, but only partly. Journal articles are often written in dense technical jargon containing seemingly mysterious equations and inferences. Trying to decipher them can trigger feelings of inadequacy and impostor syndrome reactions1: Why can’t I understand this? What’s wrong with me? I don’t belong here. Everyone else is so much smarter than me. I need a new major! If that happens, be ready.2 Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that these feelings don’t reflect reality (because they don’t), and combat them in a way that’s effective for you. For example, make a list of your accomplishments, repeat a mantra (I know I can figure this out, it will just take time), take a break until you’re more rested, get some exercise, reach out to a mentor, or have a venting session with friends.
2. The main point of reading the article may not be what you think it is.
A common misconception is that the goal of reading a journal article is to fully understand the process by which the authors did what they’re writing about. That might be the case if you’re elbow-deep in research on the same topic, but if you’re reading for a class assignment, journal club, or background information, it’s usually more important to focus on the big picture—the what and why—and to be able to briefly summarize the how than it is to understand every variable in every equation. Instead of trying to understand every sentence, try reading to answer these questions: What problem is the authors trying to solve? What’s their general approach? How successful was that approach?
3. The abstract isn’t necessarily your friend.
In a perfect world, the abstracts of physics journal articles would be great little summaries accessible to anyone with a physics background. We don’t live in that world. Abstracts often do a good job highlighting the key points of the research, but many lack the context to be meaningful on their own except to experts in the field. If an abstract isn’t working for you, just skip it and move on. You can always come back to it later.
4. Colored gel pens won’t win the battle.
Underlining and color-coding relevant information can be helpful, but to really get into an article it helps to have a comprehensive strategy. A quick online search for “reading a scientific paper” will point you toward several approaches. Here’s what works for me. Each time I need to understand a new paper, I fill in the same simple outline as I read from beginning to end. If something seems important I write it down, even if I don’t fully understand it yet.
I. General Information: Who did the research and where? What’s the research topic? Is the research experimental, theoretical, computational, or a combination of approaches?
II. Research Goal: What are the researchers attempting to do—constrain a value, characterize a sample or instrument, make a measurement, analyze observational data, refine a model, or something else?
III. Background: Why is this research goal important? What’s the context for this work?
IV. Method: What did the researchers actually do, in broad strokes?
V. Results: What did they find? What are the implications?
After I’ve gone through an article once, I look through my notes. I get rid of irrelevant details, look up key words or ideas that I don’t know, and reorganize the information in a way that makes sense to me. If I’m still totally confused, I put down the paper and get more background information on the research area. Once the outline starts coming together, I fill in any holes by going back to the paper and, if necessary, looking at the authors’ websites (many include a research overview), the websites of the lab groups involved, and press releases or university/lab news articles associated with the paper (eurekalert.org is a good resource for press releases). After I can summarize in simple terms what the researchers did and why, I go back into the paper and pull out any technical details I need.
This strategy works for me and my goals, but you may need to experiment to find out what helps you get the information you need most efficiently.
5. It’s not all in there, so stop looking.
Most academic papers represent months or years of intense effort. There’s just no way that a three-page article can be comprehensive. If you need a thorough understanding of how the researchers got from A to B to C to D, reach out to your professor, research advisor, or even the authors—in all likelihood they will be thrilled that a student is expressing interest and happy to answer your questions.
Effectively reading academic journal articles is a skill that takes time to develop—give yourself grace, and take your time. Appreciate the well-written articles and work on developing a clear writing style yourself. Tomorrow’s undergraduate physics students will thank you!
1. People with impostor syndrome have recurring doubts about their competence and worry about being outed as a fraud, despite their successes. The impostor syndrome is especially common among people from groups that are underrepresented in the field.
2. For more information on this, see Loren Soeiro, “How to Cope With Impostor Syndrome,” Psychology Today, August 22, 2019, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/i-hear-you/201908/how-cope-impostor-syndrome.