A lot of people are reading scientific papers for the first time these days, hoping to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they are having trouble making sense out of the reports.
If you’re one of these people, be advised that the scientific paper is a peculiar literary genre that can take some getting used to. Also bear in mind that these are not typical times for scientific publishing.
It is hard to think of another moment in history when so many scientists turned their attention to one subject with such speed. In mid-January, scientific papers began trickling out with the first details about the new coronavirus. By the start of June, the National Library of Medicine’s database contained over 17,000 published papers about it.
In earlier times, few people aside from scientists would have laid eyes on these papers. Now the vast majority of these papers can be accessed for free online.
But reading them can be a challenge for the layperson. Just like sonnets, sagas and short stories, scientific papers are a genre with its own unwritten rules that have developed over generations.
Early scientific papers read more like letters among friends. The first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published on May 30, 1667, included brief dispatches with titles such as “An account of the improvement of optick glasses,” and “An account of a very odd monstrous calf.”
When natural philosophers sent their letters to 17th-century journals, the editors decided whether they were worth publishing. But after 200 years of scientific advances, Victorian scientists no longer could be experts on everything. Journal editors began sending papers to outside specialists.
By the mid-1900s, this practice evolved into what’s known as peer review. A journal would publish a paper only after a panel of outside experts decided it was acceptable. Sometimes the reviewers rejected the paper outright; other times they required the fixing of weak points — either by rewriting the paper or doing additional research.
Along the way, scientific papers developed a distinctive narrative arc. A modern-day report is a four-part story.
They typically open with some history, giving a justification for the research they contain. The authors then lay out the methods they used to carry out that research. Then the papers present results, followed by a discussion of what those results mean. Scientists will typically point out the shortcomings in their own research and offer ideas for new studies to see if their interpretations hold water.
Many scientists don’t get much training in writing. As a result, it can be hard to figure out precisely what question a paper is tackling, how the results answer it and why any of it really matters.
The demands of peer review — satisfying the demands of several different experts — can make papers even more of a chore to read. Journals can make matters worse by requiring scientists to chop up their papers in chunks, some of which are exiled into a supplementary file. It’s like reading a novel in which Chapters 14, 30 and 41 were published separately.
The coronavirus pandemic presents an extra challenge: There are far more papers than anyone could ever read.
When you read through a scientific paper, it’s important to maintain a healthy skepticism. The ongoing flood of papers that have yet to be peer-reviewed — known as preprints — include a lot of weak research and misleading claims. Some are withdrawn by the authors. Many never will make it into a journal. But some of them are earning sensational headlines before burning out in obscurity.
The highest-profile example of that came in April, when French researchers published a study suggesting that hydroxychloroquine might be effective against COVID-19. Among those touting the drug was President Donald Trump, which moved news of it to the front page.
But other scientists pointed out that the test was small and not rigorously designed. A hundred leading scientists published an open letter questioning the authenticity of the database on which the study relied. In May, a much bigger study was published suggesting that the drug could increase the risk of death. In June, the FDA revoked the drug’s authorization.
When you read a scientific paper, remember that it’s never a revelation of absolute truth. At best, it’s a status report on our best understanding of nature’s mysteries.