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How to Read Research Articles in Animal Behavior

Thank you to everyone for the wonderful feedback about the first installment in this series! I am thrilled to hear that so many people found it helpful! Of course, finding a paper is only the first step. The next thing you have to do is read it! This can be extremely intimidating, especially if you haven’t done it before, or have tried in the past and found yourself struggling to follow the writing. You are not alone. Some researchers also happen to be excellent writers, but that is not the norm! Add that to the fact that a lot of research is complex and unclear and it’s kind of a recipe for disaster. The good news is, learning how to read a paper can make the experience much less intimidating! This post is going to cover how to read a scientific paper. That is, where do you start and how do you make sense of what you are reading? Future blog posts will also cover how to analyze and apply the evidence in journal articles.

Structure of a journal article

Scientific papers are divided into several sections. Understanding the function of each section will help you make sense of the article.

Abstract

The abstract is a short summary of the entire paper. It will lay out the big idea for the paper, a very brief overview of the methods, the key findings, and the authors’ conclusions. One nice thing about abstracts is that they are available for free. This way you can read the abstract before you decide if you are going to go through the extra work of actually locating the entire article (more on that here). I strongly recommend you read the full abstract, rather than just relying on the title. Sometimes (often) the title does not give a detailed enough indication of what the paper is really about. It’s not until you read the abstract (and sometimes the introduction and methods) that you truly understand what’s being studied.

Introduction

The introduction generally summarizes the results of previous research and makes a case for why the study reported in the article is important. Typically, the authors will also identify their aims and, if you’re lucky, their hypotheses. (You would think they would always present their hypotheses, but this is often not the case!)

Methods

The methods section is the next section in the paper. This section explains how subjects were obtained (e.g. social media, training schools) and the requirements for participating in the study. It also explains the techniques used in the study as well as the statistics used.

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Results

This is the most important part of the paper. This is the section where the results of the study are reported. The results section is a factual presentation of the data and the statistics. It does not provide any interpretation of the data. This section exists so readers can look at the data themselves and draw their own conclusions and interpretations – which may differ from those of the authors!

Discussion

The discussion is where all of the fun happens! There is where the researchers focus on the interpretation and implications of the research. They will talk about what the results likely mean and how they connect with – and support or refute – previous studies done on the same topic. They often address possible limitations of the study. This is important for reminding us that no single study can ever cover everything. Frequently, they will highlight remaining questions and make recommendations for future research.

This section often includes a short one paragraph summary of the results and their potential impact. Sometimes, this is including in a separate section instead.

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References

This is the final section of the paper. As the name suggests, this section lists the references cited in the article. If you see a reference to a study you are interested in reading, this is where you can get the full citation to help you find the study. (See my previous blog post for tips on getting a copy of research articles.)

Other sections

Some papers also have a separate “conclusions” section, but that is often included in the discussion. In addition, many papers will include ethical statements, acknowledgments, and/or conflicts of interest. It’s always a good idea to quickly check the conflicts of interest section. For example, if a study on a new anti-anxiety product has been conducted or funded by the manufacturer of that product, that is worth knowing!

Reading scientific journal articles

This is the hard part! Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • It’s okay if you don’t understand everything in the paper. Sure, if you are doing research in the field, you need to understand what you’re reading in great detail. If you aren’t doing research on a particular topic, it’s not absolutely necessary to understand all of the details of the methods and statistical analysis.
  • It will get easier as you go. If you are just beginning to read papers, focus on the big picture and don’t worry about the nitty gritty details. As you become more familiar with the topics and more comfortable with research papers in general, you can start to focus more on the details.
  • There are many different ways of tackling a journal article and different people have different preferences. I am going to explain how I do it, as well as mention some common approaches that others take. My recommendation is that you try a few different approaches until you find a method that works well for you.

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Quick read

A quick read is just enough to get the gist of the major findings without paying much attention to the methods, limitations, or nuances of the results. I most often use this approach for research that I am interested in but that is conducted in other species. For example, if I see an article on stress coping in fish, I am unlikely to read the entire article, but I might do a quick read of it. I will also use this approach for a topic I am only mildly interested in, even if it is in dogs. A quick read is also an excellent approach for a journal article beginner, or if you simply don’t have a lot of time.

How quickly I read through the paper depends on my level of time and interest. In some cases, I will only read the abstract and leave it at that. In other cases I might skim the introduction and read the discussion. Be aware that if you are taking this approach, you are definitely missing very important information! That’s okay – no one can read every article that comes out on every topic they are interested in! Just be extra careful about taking the specific results of the study and rigidly applying them to training and behavior. Research results are almost never clear cut. And they  always have limitations that, well, limit our ability to generalize them. This is why replication is so important!

Detailed read

When I care more about a topic, I spend much more time with the paper. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean reading every single section or reading every single section in order (see below). Scientific papers are very dense and it’s a lot to absorb. I recommend taking some notes to help you keep your thoughts organized. I do not usually do this with a quick read, but I always do it with a detailed read. I also recommend setting aside a good chunk of time to read a study. Yes, it might only be 10 pages, but if you are reading it in detail, it will take you a long time. I typically give myself at least an hour.

Introduction

Many people recommend skipping the introduction and coming back to it after you have read the results. I don’t do this. I almost always read the introduction. I find it extremely important for reviewing what we already know about a topic. It also helps me put the current paper in perspective. I find reading the introduction especially valuable when I am not as familiar with a particular topic.

This is a good place to ask yourself questions like, “How does this relate to my interests or the work I do?” and “What are the main questions they are trying to answer?”  Jot down your answers to these questions. If you are unfamiliar with the topic, it may also be a good idea to summarize what is already known, as outlined in the introduction.

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Methods and Results

Next, I will skim the methods so I have a general idea of what they are doing. Then I will usually skim the results, focusing on the questions that I care most about, or are most central to the study. It’s especially important to look at the graphs and tables. Take the time to read all the fine print and the labels on the graphs and spend time studying them until you feel like you have some idea of what they found. If you don’t have any background in statistics, you may find yourself struggling to understand some of the graphs and tables. That’s okay – get what you can and leave it at that. Future blog posts will talk a bit more about statistics in an effort to give my readers the basics of what they need to understand that section of research papers. For now, if the methods and results sections are too much, you can certainly skip them and just focus on the discussion.

As you read the methods and results, write down key points. These might be things the study itself is stating. For example, you might note that the dogs in the study were recruited from training schools, or that dogs with a bite history were excluded from the sample. It’s also a good idea to write down questions or thoughts you have. For example, “Are dogs in training school representative of the general pet population?” or “How does excluding aggressive dogs influence the results?”

I will also frequently make some of my own interpretations of the results and think about their possible implications and applications before reading the discussion. I find this helps me understand the material better because I am processing it more deeply. It also prepares me to understand what the researchers have to say about their findings. Finally – if you are as geeky as I am – it’s fun to see if the conclusions you reach match what the authors are saying!

Discussion

Once I have a big picture from the introduction and a quick read of the methods and results, I will finally read the discussion. If something doesn’t make sense, I then go back to the methods and/or the results and read them more closely.

Frequently, the authors will list the limitations of the study. They may refer to situations where the results of the study don’t apply or questions that still remain unanswered. Once study can never answer all of the questions, or look at a particular issue from all of the angles. It’s important that we recognize these limitations so that we don’t overgeneralize the results and apply them incorrectly.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the findings are useless! The important thing is to focus on the big picture. The researchers will discuss how the current results fit in – or refute – previous findings. Are these results consistent with other findings? If so, then you can be more confident in their accuracy. If you haven’t done so already, make a list of the possible applications of this information. What insight can these results give into dog behavior? Can you use these findings to modify your current approach and make it more effective? Do they suggest ways in which we might be able to prevent certain issues from developing in the first place? Maybe the results make you think of a new and innovative way to work with reactivity. Just make sure that whatever changes you make are consistent with the wider body of knowledge and best practices for training and behavior modification.

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Image by Светлана Бердник

If the findings are totally new, or conflict with previous work, then we need to be much more cautious in how – or if – we apply them. It may make more sense to keep an eye out for additional studies before making any major changes. Even in this case, though, thinking about issues from a different perspective can be very valuable and help us develop new ideas about behavior. Keep an eye out for follow-up studies on the topic to see if the findings are replicated. If so, that’s amazing because we’ve just discovered something new that we didn’t know before!

Reading for analysis and presentation

In both of the examples above, I don’t read the paper in full. That may seem strange. Do I ever read the entire paper? Yes. There are two situations when this happens. First, I will read a paper in depth if I am planning on replicating the research or doing a research project on something that is closely related to it. I will also fully read the paper if I am planning on presenting it in some other format, like a webinar or a blog post. For example, I do a full, in-depth read when I am presenting a paper for Research Bites. In these cases, I typically do read the paper in order. Starting with the introduction, then methods, then results allows me to think carefully about my own analysis and interpretations before reading the authors’ conclusions. This allows me to present a more effective critical analysis than I would be able to otherwise. Many of you will never need to read a paper in that much detail, but I mention it here because it is another option! If the paper is something that is extremely relevant to your work, it may be worth doing to make sure you have a very strong understanding of all of the details.

Final thoughts and additional resources

Remember – this is how I read research papers. Others read them differently. Many people start with the discussion, then go back and read the methods and results and finally the introduction. Some recommend scanning the whole paper first – looking at headings and subheadings only – and then going back to read the paper in more detail. There is no single way to read a journal article. Try different approaches and find the one that works for you! If you are looking for other ideas, this article shares quotes from scientists describing their techniques for reading research papers. Also, if you try to read a journal article and end up feeling completely lost and demoralized, read this article by a Dr. Adam Ruben. The first line says it all – “Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article.” I can tell you from experience that this very funny article is also very accurate! Research articles are NOT easy and it’s not just you!

Having said all of that, reading journal articles still takes a lot of work and a lot of time. If you want to keep up on the latest dog behavior and training research but simply don’t have the time to find, read, and interpret current research, then you’ll love Research Bites. In Research Bites, I present a new dog behavior and training study each month in an interactive webinar. I give you key background information, briefly explain the methods, and present the results. Then we cover the implications and applications of the results in an interactive live discussion.

If you want a bigger picture approach where you get a review of what we know about a particular area of behavior – such as cognition or fear – then check out my multi-week courses. The next course is on cognition which is a particularly challenging area of research. I’ll summarize what we know about animal cognition (with a focus on dogs), what it means for behavior, and how to apply it! I’m also teaching Introduction to Ethology which covers the function of behavior from an evolutionary perspective – learn what factors drive behavior other than reinforcement and punishment!

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Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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