The Wellness Library

How to Read and Understand a Scientific Paper: A Guide for Non-Scientists

by | Nov 2, 2022 | Wellness

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably health and wellness obsessed. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent listening to podcasts, watching Instagram stories, or reading blogs about the latest in health and wellness. 

One phrase that I heard over and over again from leading industry experts was “according to the research” or “according to a study” and honestly, I never quite understood what that meant. My background is not in medicine—in fact I graduated with a degree in Event Management and I don’t know the first thing about clinical studies or how to read research articles.

So, I set out on learning how to properly read a research / scientific article so I could actually understand what “according to the research” meant. I wanted to further my understanding of meaningful clinical research and how to apply it to my own daily practices. Here are a few tips from a non-medical professional on reading and understanding research articles!

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Start your scientific paper search on Google Scholar or PubMed

There are tons of research article databases online, so it’s important to know where to start. My favorite place to start looking for research is Google Scholar or PubMed. These databases are both free to use and have millions of abstracts (more on that later) from research articles to read.

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Use specific language to get relevant results

The first thing you’ll do in either Google Scholar or PubMed is start searching for research articles related to the topic of interest. To get the most relevant results, you’ll need to incorporate some medical terminology. For example, instead of searching for “thyroid,” you can search “Hashimoto’s thyroiditis lifestyle interventions” to get targeted results on what you actually want to learn about.

You can also begin typing in a few words related to what you’re looking for and use some of the examples that populate in the search bar to get you started.

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Understanding the abstract

The abstract is a concise summary of an entire research paper and it’s the first section at the top of the paper. It gives you the high level details about the study performed and its conclusion. If you’re interested in digging in further and the full article is not available on either platform, you can often email the author for the full research paper and many will share the full version with you for free.

The abstract will also share the objective of the study with the reader. It should give you an idea right away if the article is relevant to the information you’re looking for, or if you need to go back to your search results and browse a few others.

Confidence intervals and study size

Many research articles will share with you their confidence intervals (CI) to express their certainty in the validity of their research. From the research I’ve done, not every article shares this number, but it’s an important one to keep track of when available.

The confidence interval can be translated similarly to percentages. For example, if the confidence interval of a particular study is 95 the authors are 95% sure that their research is sound with a 5% margin of error. Here’s a good rule of thumb:

  • 91 = minimum
  • 95 = optimal
  • 97 or higher = best

There are a few factors that have an impact on the CI of a study, like sample size, percentage, and population size. In theory, the more people participating in the study, the higher the likelihood that the results are accurate!

Sample size, or study size is also an important number to keep at the back of your mind. Anywhere you see in a research article, ‘n = #’ that means the number of participants. The higher the better, as it shows that more people are part of the study and the conclusion can likely be applied more broadly to a variety of people.

Study types and which ones should be considered reliable

There are several types of studies and some tend to be more reliable than others. The main types of studies are randomized controlled trials (RTCs), cohort studies, case-control studies and qualitative studies. In fact, this National Institute of Health article breaks down the main types of studies and where they tend to work best. When considering cause-and-effect relationships, RTCs are considered the most reliable.

There aren’t any types of studies that should be considered unreliable—at the end of the day they just provide additional information to you!

Don’t get caught up in the scientific paper’s data

Digging into a research article can quickly become a rabbit hole! Don’t let yourself get too bogged down by the research if you can’t relate to it. You know yourself best; don’t be afraid to trust your own unique experiences and work with your personal healthcare provider to find a plan that works for you.


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