Learning from Scientific Papers – Part 1

As described in a previous post, I was suggesting the idea of learning more especially in applied knowledge by reading up on academic literature which tends to be more inclined to applying than theorising. This of course cannot always be a good thing, as often is the case that any ground-breaking research that can be applied or useful in anyway frequently requires several phases of development. For example, if every great founding chemist only wanted to immediately know the usefulness of a particular study then the field of chemistry as it stands now would be very sparse and backwards. However, it is useful to take into account the famous Delphic maxim that is usually applied to everything: “Everything in moderation”. Being too theoretical is not a good strategy to learning and neither is being too practical. But then by reading scientific journals technically one is not being very practical since all one is doing is reading. But I would like to counter that argument by saying that reading journals or papers can provide you with valuable knowledge that can be applied more readily to practice than if you were to rely on theory alone. This would especially be true if you are engaged in successive scientific projects and you need some ideas to fuel some sort of inspiration and to think of something that would be somewhat worthwhile. Of course, due to the time constraints and the surmounting subject matter at universities it may not always be possible to execute an ambitious but truly worthwhile project. But you still need something to think about, and while you may eventually get there with just theory alone it would take much longer than if you already have some knowledge in your head about how a certain field you were interested in was investigated under the lens of applied science before.

There is a pre-requisite however, and that is before diving into academic literature you need to have some background in the subject matter you are interested in. Trying to read a paper on pharmaceuticals without much knowledge in organic chemistry, physiology or perhaps physicochemical interactions will likely leave you feeling lost at the end of your reading. If you were inclined, you could stop at a concept that you don’t understand and do some reading on it until you understand it and then move on. That approach would work better if you knew some fundamentals in that particular field, but otherwise time will just be wasted because most likely you will have so much to look up that you will diverge exponentially away from your main goal. It also depends on how much time you want to spend on reading a paper. Ideally, such academic materials should reinforce or build upon what you had learned and provide you with some valuable insights. Though be that as it may, some barriers to this include the following:

  • Publish or perish attitude of the academic community as of the present day. Due to this, you may come across papers that may seem nonsensical or without any purpose.
  • Authors going on ego-trips or papers being written in a complicated fashion because of fear of being thought of as fluffy. Often is the case that many researchers may want to show off their knowledge. While all well and good, to the undergraduate student such writings come across as incomprehensible and do not communicate science. Then there is another case where researchers or academics may think that writing in a comprehensible and simple manner belittles their work or the insight that they want to give.

However, some filtering can be applied in the aforementioned cases by reading the Abstract and Introduction of academic material to determine whether:

  • It is written in a manner whereby you think you will understand atleast 80% of the content,
  • It is something that you would like to have a deeper insight into.

If you have difficulty understanding or following the general content then it may be time to give up reading the paper and move on with core university studies or to retry in the near-future. It is good to keep in mind that many scientific papers are written by people who have more years of experience in a particular field and/or had more years of study than someone who is simply in the first or second year of an undergraduate degree. Again, it is not always as clean-cut as this as there are cases where researchers do not have a clear idea of what they are talking about and this can show in their writing, but just speaking generally.

So, you have a particular interest and you would like to deepen your knowledge in certain areas. Let us use an example to guide us to see how this idea of learning from scientific papers can supplement what we had learned from a book or from a course.

Let us say that we have this situation whereby we are interested in neurology. First, we select a field that we would like to expand our insight in. Why not to see whether there are any sex-related differences in the nervous system. We come across many articles, but let us see what the differences are in terms of pathologies. Then we choose this article:

Wonderful. The abstract seems understandable, and from the introduction we can note some useful information (and many questions).

  • Sex differences in neurological diseases is an under-represented field and warrants further research (potential for your own research or for a project in neurology)
  • Brief examples are given where it seems adult-onset disorders have a higher frequency in females than males. But why, can you formulate a probable explanation using your current knowledge? Being inquisitive is important as well as keeping track of your questions. These can help anchor your mind to the paper and deepen your insight when you try to look for answers.
  • There are sex-related differences in the brain whereby neuroanatomy is determined by gonadal sex-steroids or genes on chromosomes and these in turn influence behaviour. But how do gonadal sex-steroids influence neuroanatomy exactly? This would indicate that there are significant differences in the signalling pathways between neuronal cells among men and women, is this correct? How would these differences be distinguished exactly in terms of their low-level mechanics? From the other part of the statement, it would be implied that the two sex chromosome consist of genes that codify for proteins that are expressed in different ways in the brain depending on whether those proteins were translated from the X chromosome or the Y chromosome. To what extent does gene expression in relation to neuroanatomy differ between the X and Y chromosomes? How then would this apply to aneuplodies?

These questions may not be answered in the same paper, but they would certainly greaten our understanding and breadth of the subject if we seek the answers to them at a later time. Next, we move on to Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Before we continue, it would be a good idea to have in mind what characterises this category. We can move on if we want to and try to infer the differences between pathologies through inference, though to gain more value it would be good to know the definition. It doesn’t have to be a long discourse, it can just be as short as a paragraph as long as you gain something from it. Look for economy of time and knowledge, how to get the most from less. Therefore, from a simple internet search and according to a site called Nature, the following is said.

Neurodevelopmental disorders are a group of disorders in which the development of the central nervous system is disturbed. This can include developmental brain dysfunction, which can manifest as neuropsychiatric problems or impaired motor function, learning, language or non-verbal communication.

Okay, then what gems can we now glom from this section of the paper?

  • Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) may be considered illustrative in sex-based differences, with a ratio of 4 males to 1 female that jumps to 11 males to 1 female in high-functioning cases. But the studies of the last two decades before 2016 show a trend of decreasing male predominance. Why? What has changed to cause this decreasing trend and why are there differences in the first place?
  • An attempt is made to answer our questions in the next paragraph. The male sex-bias with regard to ASD may be due to an interaction between sex steroids, immune factors, prenatal stressors and susceptibility genes. It was also stated that it is possible that genes on the Y chromosome interact with ASD susceptibility genes to contribute to the autistic phenotype. However, at the same time, most of the genes implicated in this disorder are not located on the sex chromosomes. Can we trace back the aforementioned interactions to see which chromosomes are involved, if not sex-chromosomes? This proposal of biological mechanisms is used to explain the bias in ADHD (Hyperactivity Disorder) as well.
  • For ASD, it may be that diagnosis procedures are not sufficiently rigorous. Thus it may be the case that the frequency of girls affected may be similar to that of the boys since autism is detected via Gestural Indexes. It has been found that despite having autism girls show more vivid gestures than boys when infants which may have skewed studies. But this would then suggest that sexual differences in neuroanatomy begin very early at the infant stage, perhaps even earlier than that. What leads to these differences in Gestural Index? Do males and females differ in neuron receptors, neuron architecture, variances in the sizes and interconnection of brain regions, some of these or all of these?

And we continue in this manner for the rest of the paper. Extracting the important points and being inquisitive, then seeing if our questions are being answered in further sections. Clearly, this process can get tiring but like any mental exercise it requires practice to build endurance. Speed will come later and with time. Therefore, it is a good rule of thumb to practice on simpler papers before moving on to more complicated material. In a way, this approach is very similar to the concept of “active reading” of textbooks, whereby information at regular intervals is summarised.

The above paper presented was a review. Reviews generally provide a great breadth of information with some depth but not too much. The conclusion section nicely summarises the information presented, and could be used as a filtering criterion to determine whether a paper would be worth reading or would be within your area of interest. But compared to simply reading a textbook, by expanding our scope of materials we are able to increase our applied knowledge several-fold if we not only actively read but also seek the answers to the questions we have in a smart way.

We may return to the textbook to see if we can formulate an answer on our own if we are lacking knowledge in one area, or we may search for another article or paper that deals with our question problem. This often leads to a lot of divergence because of the wealth of information available, but with some discipline discerning what is important to you at the moment it is all achievable. Afterall, everything cannot be accomplished within a day or as the old addage “Rome was not built in a day”.

That concludes this side-post. Happy reading and studying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *