Publications Part 4: What to do once you’ve read a scientific paper.

I’m going to write a series of posts on the black art of scientific publications.  I’m planning a journal based exercise for one of my classes next year and need to provide some information on what journals are and why they are.  I thought the best way to help me think about this was to write some blog posts in an attempt to get the key ideas together.  These are written from the perspective of an academic chemist, and with an educated lay audience in mind.  Comments and suggestions are welcome.

You’re probably going to need some of the information from the scientific paper at a later date.  It’s a good idea to highlight the important pieces of information, and write short comments in the margins to remind you of why they matter.  You should develop a good filing system for scientific papers so that you can find things easily when writing reports or your own papers.

If you use an experimental procedure from a paper, record the full paper reference in your laboratory book.  It may also be useful to stick in a printed copy of the important section.  When you write up that procedure, you must reference the paper.

If you plan to use the paper in an introduction, or discussion section, record the key details of the paper in your own words and note down the reference.  In general, scientists don’t quote from scientific papers unless it is something very important or controversial.  You must be able to use your own words to describe the paper, but its OK to use the same technical terms.

Invest the time in a good piece of reference management software.  There are lots of free programs available.  Expect to spend a big chunk of time installing the software and learning the basic features and commands, then small bits of time making sure that papers you find are correctly stored in it.  It is worth making the effort to note down the references of papers as you find them otherwise it is an extremely boring task to catch up on.  You can get  plug-ins for web browsers that let you store references with one click of the mouse.  If the paper is electronic, you may wish to save a copy of the PDF file for future reference.  A good file name system for this is last name of first author and year of publication.  Some people chose to add key words to the title so they know what the paper is on, some reference management software allows you to do this too.  It generally helps you to find the important papers quickly later.

2 thoughts on “Publications Part 4: What to do once you’ve read a scientific paper.

  1. Not sure if you didn’t mention specific reference management packages for a reason. I use Reference Manager at work – I used to use Endnote – both have plugins to Word which are really useful in terms of functionality there doesn’t seem much to separate them. Zotero (a Firefox plugin) looks really nice, and is free.

    Nearly everything I get now comes as PDF’s, I tend to save them with their original file name plus a sequence code (currently: U1, U2, U3…) appended to the beginning and then file the paper copy by that sequence code. This scheme works well as long as your reference software is working!

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I thought about it, but I didn’t want to get into discussing the relative merits of reference management packages, particularly as I flit between them something chronic at the moment.

    I’ve tried Zotero, an older version by now I suspect, and it was nice. I understand that its now compatible with Mendeley which is my current reference manager of choice.

    I like the fact that you have a filing system that accommodates PDF and paper copies – again something I have failed to master.

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