Introduction to Reading Primary Literature


Reading a scientific paper can be a daunting task for an undergraduate. This assignment is designed to provide a structure for students to read a paper from primary literature. This exercise will instruct students to analyze each figure individually and identify the authors’ conclusions. They will then interpret the data themselves and decide whether their conclusions coincide with the authors’ conclusions.  

What is the strategy?

Students will be instructed to read a paper from primary literature (in this exercise Broussard et al., 2013). The students will be instructed to skip the abstract and methods sections and focus on the introduction and results and discussion sections. The students will also be given a background lecture with all of the information necessary to understand the paper. During class, the students will break up into groups and each group will answer the questions on the attached worksheet. During the next class, students will be randomly selected to present their answers from the worksheet to the class.

Value of using this strategy:

The purpose of this exercise is to make reading primary literature more palatable for students. Students often struggle when it comes to reading primary literature. Often students get overwhelmed when reading sections of a paper that are written for experts in the field (e.g. abstract, methods section). Researchers that are non-experts often skip these sections so students will be instructed to do the same avoid students giving up on reading the paper due to frustration. Also, students think of a paper as being one long story, when in reality, a paper has and introduction followed by a series of vignettes (i.e. figures). Focusing on each figure individually can be less overwhelming and can be made easier by providing the students a framework for how to attack each figure. This assignment will provide that framework. Lastly, it is important for students to realize that while papers are peer-reviewed by other researchers in the field, occasionally papers contain flaws (sometimes major flaws that leads to the printing of a retraction). This method will also encourage students to be critical of the data and conclusions made in this paper.

Example exercise