How to Read a Research Paper

The site aims to present a lot of research articles that can help solve problems in communities around us. It is essential that you read the articles carefully and reflect upon them to make the optimal use of the information presented.

In this document, we present a few guidelines that can help you analyse the research articles that you read on this site. These guidelines are not exhaustive and present the basic concepts that help to understand, assimilate and apply research. We believe that any reading of research should aim to interpret the results, for optimal application, in the context of the strengths and limitations of the research and focus on whether we can apply the results to any particular scenario.

Guidelines to reading a Research Paper

  1. Let me start with an often missed statement. The most important guideline to reading any research paper is respect. The researcher(s) has put an effort to think of, do and communicate the research. Let us respect and appreciate that. Humans or animals or other living and non-living things have helped the researcher(s) explore and present their ideas. Let us respect that. In short, let us start with an open and respectful attitude to the research team and the subjects that helped them. Let us appreciate their efforts. Let us try to learn from them and share our thoughts with them.
  2. Look at the title of the study. The title should give you a fair idea about the research study. The title tells you what to expect when you read this paper. Precise, focused research often leads to papers that have clear, specific titles. The title often reflects the clarity of the research team.
  3. Research papers usually have an abstract. The abstract is essentially a summary of the main points of the research. The abstract may be structured with specific headings. The abstract may also be unstructured and presented in a narration.
    1. What do you look for in the abstract? The abstract should present the aim of the research, the methods used to answer the research question, the main findings of the investigation and a very brief conclusion.
    2. Why do you read the abstract? It gives you an overview of the research
    3. Do not stop with just reading the abstract. This is a common (more common than you expect) practice. Do not stop with just reading the abstract as the abstract presents only a summary of the results. You have to read the complete paper to interpret the information meaningfully.
  4. Research Papers usually have a brief introduction. Focused research that leads to focused research papers have short precise introductions (One to two or three paragraphs; each paragraph of maybe 5 to 6 sentences). They introduce the reader to the research they have done by stating
    1. A brief statement of the research hypothesis or research question. What did they study?
    2. A brief rationale about why the researchers did this study
      1. A brief introduction to what is already known about this specific area
      2. A brief introduction to how this particular research study will add value to what is already known
    3. Research papers follow the introduction with a description of the methods and material used to answer the research question. Look through this section carefully. Any question can be answered through different means. However, there will be one ideal way to answer a question and several alternate ways to answer the question meaningfully. When you read the methods, look to see if the research team provides enough information on
      1. When did they do the study?
      2. Where did they do the study?
      3. What study design did they use to answer the research question?
      4. Who were the subjects for the study? Who were included and who were excluded?
      5. How were the subjects for the study selected? When were they selected, who selected them, what process and criteria was used?
      6. Did the subjects have the freedom to participate or refuse to participate in the study? Was participation voluntary, were there any incentives or coercion to participate? Did participants provide informed consent to participate in the study?
      7. Was the research protocol approved by an independent research oversight body (Institutional Review/Ethics Board)? The Institutional Review Board is an independent oversight body that includes several people including subject experts and others representing several areas of expertise including members of the general public. The Institutional Review Board ensures that research studies do not harm participants and serve to protect the rights and interest of participants.
      8. Do the researchers offer clear, standardised and acceptable definitions (with references) for what they study?
      9. Do the researchers offer clear, standardised and acceptable definitions (with references) for measures that can help answer the question? For example, a high blood pressure is defined as “xyz”.
      10. Do the researchers offer clear, standardised and acceptable methods to measure what the researchers want to study?
      11. Do the researchers offer clear, standardised and acceptable definitions of outcomes?
      12. Do the researchers offer clear, standardised and acceptable descriptions of any interventions they use?
      13. Do the researchers provide information on the methods they have used to describe the results? What statistical tests, if any, were used, what software was used to analyse results, what was considered as a significant result?
    4. The next section in a research paper deals with the results or findings of the research.
      1. How many subjects were studied?
      2. Do the researchers provide information on how many subjects dropped out of the study?
      3. Do the researchers provide information on how many subjects exited the study (due to adverse events)?
      4. Do the researchers provide information on how many potential subjects refused to participate in the study?
      5. Have the researchers provided information (in the methods section) on how they studied all the results that have been presented?
      6. The nature of the results presented will depend on the research question and design and hence we will not go into greater detail on that here.
    5. The next section of the research paper is the discussion on the research findings or results. Look to see if
      1. The researchers discuss their findings. This is different from just rewriting the results using different words.
      2. Do the researchers interpret their results?
      3. Do they inform you on the strengths of the study?
      4. Do they inform you on the limitations of the study?
      5. Do they inform you how the strengths and limitations influence their interpretation of the results?
      6. Do they provide you information on relevant, recent studies on similar areas? Do they explain how their findings maybe similar or dissimilar to those studies and why?
      7. Do the researchers offer their recommendations on the application of their research and possibilities for further research that can build on the results of their study?
    6. Do the researchers acknowledge those who have helped the conduct of the research study (grants, funders)?
    7. Do the researchers disclose potential conflicts of interest or financial interests?
    8. This is a very important step that lets you assimilate and analyse the research better.
      1. Can you apply these results to the community you live in? If yes, why? If no, why not?
      2. How will you try to answer a similar question? Will you do things the same or different? Why?


This document is prepared by Praveen Nirmalan.  Information in this document is dynamic and subject to change as knowledge evolves.