Reading the primary literature.

Complete this assignment independently.

With any luck, at this point in the semester you should be able to pick up any paper from the Cell Biology primary literature and understand something about it. To understand everything about it is an unreasonable expectation. Only the researchers in that particular field will be able to do that. However, the rest of us can still learn from these papers. We can gain an understanding of the background literature that led to the study since it is reviewed in the Introduction. From the Materials and Methods we can learn about the techniques that were used, and from the Results and Discussion sections we can see what was discovered and what it means, respectively. There is some overlap in these sections but each has a separate function and should not sound redundant.

It takes a very long time to be able to write scientific papers well. It isn't like writing an essay for an english class. Scientific writing can tend to be slightly boring because writers try not to use flowery language. The point is to let the reader understand what was done and why, as clearly and concisly as possible. Rather than using persuasive words, the writer tries to let the data speak for itself and serves mearly as the guide. If data are weak and the writer tries to conclude too much from them, the reader may not believe any of the conclusions. On the contrary, if the data are strong and conclusive, a cautious, conservative writer can be very persuasive. In my opinion, the best way to learn how to write well in a scientific style is to read a lot of papers, mimic the style, and get lots of practice.

This introduction to scientific writing is intended to be just that, an introduction. For many students this may be their first attempt. A good approach may be to first read the Abstract (a brief overview of the entire paper), then skim the Introduction and Results sections. From these one will be able to determine what the study was about, what the major questions were that the authors tried to answer, and what kinds of experiments or observations were used. If done well, the figures and tables should stand by themselves and reveal the meaning of the results before one actually reads their descriptions in the Results section. After skimming, start again and the Introduction should make more sense. The Materials and Methods should also make more sense because you will know what results were obtained. Read carefully through the Results section again and new meaning will probably appear. Lastly, read the Discussion to see how the authors interpret their results in the context of the broader literature. If any citations catch your eye, find them in the Literature Cited section and go back to the library!

If some parts of the paper don't make perfect sense, try to determine which words you didn't understand and use your textbook's glossary or index to try to find out what they mean. Don't be discouraged. The next time you read a similar paper it will make much more sense to you!

Now that you have read the paper, answer the following questions in no more than one type-written page, double spaced. Staple the page to the photocopied paper and turn both in to your instructor. Don't forget to include your name and the date.

1. What was this paper about? In your answer include the latin and common names of the organism studied, and describe the problem being addressed.

2. Describe one of the major results in your own words. Refer to a figure or table illustrating the result and explain what the experiment revealed.

3. Briefly summarize the significance of the results. Was any paradigm shifted or did the paper simply fill out a corner of some well understood phenomenon? Again, use your own words.

For more tips on scientific writing, consult these links.


10/29/07 Copyright (C) 1997-2007, Jonathan Monroe, monroejd@jmu.edu. All rights reserved.
URL: http://csm.jmu.edu/biology/courses/bio220/aotw10.html