How to Read a Scientific Journal Article

If you want to stay up on the latest research in cosmetic science, you’ll have to learn to quickly filter and read scientific papers. With page turning titles like “Dermatological aspects of a successful introduction and continuation of alcohol-based hand rubs for hygienic hand disinfection” or “Deposition of 18-MEA onto alkaline-color-treated weathered hair to form a persistent hydrophobicity” keeping up can be challenging. confused chemist reader

Fret not! We here at Chemists Corner have put together the following tips that will make it much easier for you to figure out what you don’t need to read and how to get the most out of everything you do read.

Don’t do this

The worst possible thing you can do is to read an article from the title to the conclusion straight through. It will take a lot of time & brainpower to understand and you may not learn anything useful. As a formulation chemist, your time is valuable. Don’t waste it on unproductive reading.

Take notes

To help you remember new ideas or other insights you get while reading, be sure to have a paper and pen ready to take notes while reading. If you’re able, just write right on the article. You can write questions to yourself and see if they are answered while you’re reading. The combination of reading and note-taking will make the study of the article much more effective.

Why are you reading it?

The first thing you want to figure out is why you would read a particular article anyway. Scan the title to get a rough idea of what the article is about. Then ask yourself “Why would I read this?” If you are a cosmetic chemist who specializes in hair products do you really need to read an in-depth article about antiperspirant efficacy? There may be a good reason (finding inspiration for new ways to test your hair product) but it is probably of academic interest only. You should focus on articles that will teach you things applicable to your job. Before reading any article always ask yourself

What do I hope to learn by reading this article?

Review the Authors

You’ll notice that some authors are quoted time and again in literature. For example, in the Journal of Cosmetic Science, Clarence Robbins and Yash Kamath are some of the most respected and often cited researchers in the subject of hair. Articles written by them are worth your time. However, supplier sponsored articles may not be scientifically robust enough for you to get much out of them. They might be excessively biased which should cause you to question the results.

Figure out what the title means

Once you know what kind of bias the authors might bring, it’s time to start dissecting the headline. This is often challenging, but given enough thought you can do it.

Take this example…

“Dermatological aspects of a successful introduction and continuation of alcohol-based hand rubs for hygienic hand disinfection”

If you pick out a few keywords you can get the gist of what they are talking about.

  • ‘Dermatological aspects’ — It’s about how they affect the skin.
  • ‘alcohol based hand rubs’ — It’s about hand sanitizers.
  • ‘introduction and continuation’ — It’s about frequent use

So, from these keywords the article is roughly about how using alcohol based hand sanitizers will affect skin over time. If this is an area of formulating relevant to you, continue reading the article. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Understand the abstract or synopsis

After figuring out the headline, next try to tackle the abstract. If it’s written well, it will succinctly describe the hypothesis, what was done to test it and the results. You’ll get a great sense about whether you need to read further.

Review the diagrams & procedures

Instead of moving right to the background / introduction, use your knowledge from the abstract and look at the diagrams. At this point it should be evident what the graphs are trying to depict. Check to see if the control makes sense, if you understand the differences shown, and if the information matters to you. To help understand the figures, look at the method/procedure section. If it is relevant to your work, try to visualize doing the experiment yourself. This could help you repeat the work if you wanted to.

Read the Intro

At this point, you should know well enough if you want to read any more. Start with the introduction to determine whether the authors know about what has already been studied in the area. You will eventually become an expert in your area of study and you’ll be able to tell how knowledgeable these authors are. If they don’t seem like they’ve got a grasp on the subject, be suspicious of the results. They may have made an obvious mistake.

Read the results sections

You should next read the results section to see what the authors think is the implication of their work. Here is where you can get some ideas on how you might apply the knowledge gained from reading the article. You can also decide whether you agree with their conclusions. Often what’s written by the author is not the only way to interpret the data.

Read the discussion last

Finally, take a look at the discussion section. Since you’ve already understood the title, abstract and diagrams, this section should only be skimmed to see if it answers (or raises) any questions that remain. If the first few sections were well-written, this section should require the least amount of reading by you.

Articles and the Cosmetic Chemist

Reading scientific articles can make you a smarter cosmetic chemist and can provide a great source of new, formulation and innovation ideas. Make a habit to read at least one scientific article in your specific field each day. They will become easier to read and you’ll become an area expert. Who knows? Once you know enough, you will be writing an article yourself.

Do you have any suggestions on how you might read a scientific article? Leave a comment below and let the other chemists on Chemist’s Corner know.

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