Reading Scientific Papers


    Throughout the semester you will need to figure out how your ideas fit within the context of exisiting, published research.  Once you observe a field pattern and begin to develop questions about it, the next step should be to see whether or not anyone else has already studied this topic and to find out what they discovered.  Ideally, reading a few papers related to your original question will help you make it better, more interesting, and more novel because you will be building onto an existing understanding.  There are two search engines to choose from.   

    How you conduct your search is really important.  If you use too few search terms [River + macroinvertebrate] you will get an enormous list of papers, many of which will be off topic.  If you use terms that are too specific [Eno River + NC + Epeorus] you may find very little.  When your search yields too many or too few papers, don't waste time on the list, revise your search.

    Once you have the right search terms (~the papers in your list mostly seem relevant to your question) then you can cheat a bit (if you're using Web of Science) and ask the program to order your list by ranking papers by the number of times each was cited in another published work.  When you do this, the top of the list will show you the most influential (or the oldest) papers on the topic.  I like to do this, and also to look at the papers published in the last couple of years as my first cut on getting a good handle on what the "dogma" is and what the new "frontier" is for a given topic. 


    Once you have a set of relevant papers, you have to find out what they say.  It takes time to learn how to read papers efficiently and strategically.  Here's a nice essay on the subject of reading papers by Dr. Laurel Collins of Florida International University


    You will start to build a library of papers that you use for your papers and independent project in this course.  Take advantage of bibliography software like EndNote (available for free download from Duke OIT, instructions on use from Duke Libraries) or Mendeley (available for free at to store your citations and to build bibliographies quickly.


    When you read and use information from papers in your writing and thinking, you have to give credit where credit is due.  Get used to remembering the name of the first author who did the work so you can cite them in discussions, and insert citations appropriately into your writing. 

    You should not cite papers that you have not read, and you have to be careful not to misrepresent (or overstate) the conclusions of a paper.

    Have some other useful tips, strategies, questions?  Add them here in the comment box