The Structure of Scientific Papers
The Structure of Scientific Papers
Scientific research is actually not spectacular and fantastical if you get down to the fundamental particles of scientific progress, the atoms if you will, the single scientific paper. This is really where science happens, but these papers are exceedingly specific. They use technical language intended to communicate details to a global community. This is the reason there are refereed journals in specific fields, such as The Journal of Materials Chemistry, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Nucleic Acids Research, The Journal of Biological Physics, or The American Journal of Potato Research. Yes, the last one was a real journal.
They tell a story though, if you read them over time. You come to appreciate that no paper ever represents the final say on any field of research. The scientific methodology is a process to be navigated, analyzed, appreciated within its limits, but never to be taken as proof or disproof of our Catholic faith. We know that truth does not contradict truth. Faith is not subject to science. Faith comes first. We start by seeing the universe as Creation, and seeking to understand it. So when we read scientific papers, we need to be able to see the paper in the light of faith, accepting what is good and rejecting what contradicts Catholic dogma. This follows in the manner of St. Albert and St. Aquinas, and the other medieval scholars, assessing the Greek scientific corpus.
The dialogue of today needs communicators. To be able to discuss science in the light of the Catholic faith, you need to know something about the scientific research. Obviously, not everyone who participates in this discussion needs to earn a terminal degree in the field of a hard science, but if an apologist tries to engage in these discussions without knowing anything about the science, he or she will fail to convince. The best way to learn how modern science is done without becoming a scientist is to read the literature the scientists publish that details the background, the methods, the results, and the conclusions of their research. To read the papers, it helps to know the structure of the paper.
First, obviously, is the title. Even though it is short, a title can tell you a lot. They are written purely for information. There is no fluff or floweriness in a scientific paper, which perhaps can seem drab, but for scientists who just need the information, technical language is a great service. Titles are not written to sound any more complicated than they need to be, but at times they will include complicated terminology. If you encounter words you have never seen before, you are in the company of most people, including other scientists who do not specialize in that field. The definitions of technical words and phrases can be found in the scientific paper or by looking them up on the internet. If you come across a title with a key word or two that you are interested in, search the paper for the other words in the title, usually in the first section Background or Introduction, and find out what they mean. The language is almost mathematical in the sense that scientific words have very precise meanings.
The author list comes right below the title. If a research team did the work, the lead researcher will be listed first as the primary author. This is usually a graduate student but can also be a professor. The last name in the list is also important. This name is the professor who runs the research group and acquires the funding through grants. Sometimes there are two last names because two research groups collaborate (or more). These are indicated with an asterisk or superscript corresponding to the name/s of the institution/s where the work was done or managed. The other names in between are usually listed in descending order of contributions.
The abstract is a punchy summary. It is not a teaser. It is not a tagline to draw interest. It has nothing to do with marketing the paper in any way. It is, again, informational. A reader can know in a matter of seconds what a paper contains, Background, Method, Discussion, and Conclusion, by reading the Abstract. They are packed with the most important facts from the paper, especially the conclusions.
Think in layers. If you like the title, read the abstract. If you like the abstract, read on in the paper. If you like the title, read the abstract, and realize the paper deals with something other than what you were looking for, move on. The abstracts save research time. On the other hand, if you like the abstract or find it describes work you want to know about, the abstract also gives you an overview of what you are about to read.
It is like reading St. Aquinas’ Summa theologiæ, or at least how some people read it. You can read the Summa like you might read scientific papers. Read the title of the questions if you are searching for a particular question. Are you looking for an explanation of the theological virtue of hope? The discontinuous motion of angels? Whether the mind wanders when we pray? If you know what you are looking for, you can browse the questions. When you find the questions, the next thing I do is to read the “On the Contrary” part. It is like the Abstract of a scientific paper. It contains the answer to the question in a concise summary. You would probably not read the Objections and Answers to Objections in the Summa until you read the question and answer first though. Again, read in layers.
The background is just that. It puts the specific work and conclusions into the greater context of the scientific research. Depending on what you want to know, this part can be skipped. If you are trying to understand what is going on at large in a particular field of research, for example CRISPR-Cas9 research, then a good background section is valuable. It will not only explain chronologically the development of that field of research but will also have citations to other scientific papers drawing a trail through time of advancement. Indeed, the success of a scientific paper is measured by how many times it is cited by other papers. Large numbers of citations means that the work was significant in a field of research. If you are new to a field, the background can be difficult to get through, but again, it is packed with information so take it one line at a time just as you would tip-toe through a long section in the Summa.
This is the cookbook section. Some Methods sections are more detailed than others. Some cite other Methods sections in other papers if the researchers followed another technique closely. Either way, a Methods section should give another researcher enough information to reproduce the work. That is part of the purpose of it. The other purpose is to let other scientists know what was done so they can understand the thinking of the research team as they formulated the results and conclusions. If you are just browsing scientific literature, a Methods section can often be skipped. On the other hand, if you are looking for something specific, like whether the researchers used fetal body parts or embryonic stem cells in their research, this is exactly the place you want to look.
Sometimes the Results section is called the Discussion section. There will be some kind of discussion of results following the Methods and preceding the Conclusions. This section can be skipped too unless you are particularly interested in the data. Often in browsing, papers can seem long and daunting, but if you understand how they are organized, you understand that much of the paper can be skipped unless you have a purpose for reading the more technical details. Do not skip the Methods and Results too much though. They are a good way to gain insight into the level of precision a scientist must operate.
Like the Background, this is a good informational section of the paper, but the Conclusions are probably more important than the Background. The Background is good for delving into a greater context. The Conclusion is good for a lengthier version of the Abstract. It will provide more information about how the Background, the Methods, and the Results are connected. The Conclusion section will also briefly describe future experiments or propose further studies. If you are a scientist searching for research projects, the Conclusion section is a fun place to come up with new ideas — new cycles of the Scientific Method. Essentially, the publication of scientific articles is the Scientific Method at work: observe, hypothesize, design experiments, test hypothesis, gather data, report conclusions.
Final note: All scientific papers have these sections, but each section is not always labeled. In the example about the fossils of strepsirhines, the sections are not labeled. They can, nevertheless, be identified.