Here are the major sections and what you can gain from reading (or skimming) each of them.

Abstract

Almost every research paper begins with an abstract.  The abstract is the short summary of the study that’s provided before the start of the paper itself.  Often, it is separated into subsections that match the sections in the paper (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusion).  This is called a structured abstract.  Structured abstracts contain all of the key methods and findings that are explained in more depth in the paper itself.

In many cases, the abstract alone is sufficient.  If all you want to know are the authors’ major findings or what research question or topic they were addressing, look no further.  Most researchers skim a lot of abstracts at first, then go into more depth with only a few complete articles.

Introduction

The Introduction section generally provides background information about the topic being studied, describes the research questions and/or objectives (aims) of the study, and points out the gap in knowledge that this research study is trying to fill.

For example, a paper on cardiac arrest might begin with general information about the topic of cardiac arrest, including how many people suffer cardiac arrests per year, how deadly the condition is, and/or what treatments or interventions have been used to help people with cardiac arrest in the past.  What background information is included depends on the purpose of the paper.  A study on a new type of cardiac arrest treatment would focus on previous treatments and their effectiveness, whereas a study on how to get more bystanders to provide CPR might focus more on how often bystanders currently provide CPR and what the known barriers are.

After providing a general background, the introduction may provide a “review of the literature,” which is an overview of all the other research, or at least the main or well-known work, that has been done on the same topic.  In our example of a study evaluating a new treatment for cardiac arrest, the authors would probably cite (refer to) other papers that reported on cardiac arrest treatments.

How the author decides to cite the previous research depends on the field of study and the specific journal.  In some cases, authors might use parenthetical citations such as (Jones, 1998); in other fields, superscript numbers such as1,2 might be used.  No matter what type of citation style is used, you can look at the references list at the end of the paper to find the specific study the authors refer to in that sentence.  This practice is extremely important to scientific research because it ensures that new studies are built on and recognize existing knowledge—whether they agree with it or not.

At the end of the introduction (sometimes with a separate subheading), the authors will provide objectives or aims.  These are the purposes the study is hoping to achieve.  In our example, the authors might say that their objective is to “determine the effectiveness of a new cardiac arrest treatment in reducing mortality.”  The objective or aim is always stated as a verb (such as “to determine,” “to demonstrate,” “to measure” . . .) and should also give you an idea of what, exactly, is being measured.  In this example, the thing to be measured is mortality—i.e., the number of patients who died following the treatment.

In short, the introduction should provide you with enough background knowledge to understand the study and a sense of what the authors were trying to accomplish.  Researchers who are very familiar with a topic may skip down and just look at the aims and objectives, but for new researchers, reading introductions can be very helpful in giving you a broad knowledge of the subject and a sense of all the different studies that are being done on it.

Methods

The Methods section describes, in detail, how the study was conducted.  The main reason that researchers would read the methods section in full is to evaluate the procedures used by the authors.

For example, if you were reading a study that used a survey method, you might want to check the methods section to see how many people took the survey.  Similarly, if you were reading a study that evaluated dispatchers’ ability to identify the correct Chief Complaint, you would look in the methods section to find out how they measured “correctness”—did they use ED-Q call reviews, or did they look at what responders actually found when they got to the scene?

The methods section also explains how the results were analyzed, including statistical approaches that were used.

Finally, methods sections generally describe the population that was studied and any interventions that were applied.  In our cardiac arrest example, the methods section might explain that the authors reviewed every hospital-identified cardiac arrest case in a particular city (the setting), for patients over 18 years of age (the study population), during a certain time period.

However, despite the critical importance of using (and reporting) a rigorous scientific methodology in every study, many readers either skip or skim large sections of the methods.  This is because many readers, while interested in the study’s findings, do not need to know exactly which statistical tests were performed or how participants were specifically selected for inclusion in the study.

In particular, if you are new to research or don’t feel comfortable with technical statistical and procedural descriptions, feel free to skip or skim the methods section.  Focus on the introduction and discussion for the key points!

Results

The Results section does just what it says: it presents the major findings of the study.  Here is where you will also find most of the study’s tables and figures.

The main thing to remember about the results section is that this is where the measurements are reported.  If the study was looking at how many patients died in each of several test groups, here is where those numbers of deaths would be reported.  If the study was investigating response times in different locations, the specific times would be reported in the results section.

For this reason, the results section can sometimes seem overly dense and complex to new researchers.  Don’t worry about that.  The main findings are almost always summarized in the discussion section, which we’ll explain in a moment.

What you should focus on in the results section, in fact, is not the text but the images.  Tables and Figures can provide a lot of information in a small space, and you can get a sense of the overall findings just by glancing over them.  For more information about how to read Tables and Figures, take a look at the “What Should I Know About Tables and Figures?” tab below.

Discussion

The Discussion section is one of the most important in the study.  If you don’t read anything but the introduction and the discussion, you can generally get a very good sense of what was found and why it’s important.

The purpose of the discussion section is to explain the results, to provide a sense of their significance.  So while the results section describes what was found by listing the actual measurements and numbers, the discussion section describes what we learned (as authors, but also as a field) from doing the study.

For example, in the cardiac arrest treatment study, let’s imagine that the authors found an 8% survival rate from cardiac arrest with a previous treatment method, but they found a 19% survival rate with the new method.  That information would be reported in the results section.

The discussion would build on those findings, explaining their relevance to real-world users.  They might explain any barriers to implementing the new treatment—or, alternately, ways in which implementation would fit in with existing processes.  They might describe any caveats, or remaining questions, that could leave some doubt about the results.  They might explain how the new treatment could affect other types of diseases, or cardiac arrest patients in different age groups or areas of the world.  Finally, most discussion sections include a mention of future research that would build on the current study.

In some cases, a study also includes a section marked Conclusion or Conclusions.  This is the short, summary version of the main findings and discussion points.

Takeaway

In summary, you don’t need to read every single research paper in full—which is a good thing, since literally thousands are published every day.

Instead, if you know what types of information can be found in each section, you can be a savvy research reader, focusing on the information you need.

  • If you’d like to get a broad overview of the work that has been done on a topic, read a lot of abstracts.
  • If you are hoping to learn more about a particular topic in depth, introductions can give you helpful background knowledge, plus a lot of references to other sources.
  • If you have enough background to be conducting your own study, take a look at some other papers’ methods sections to see how other people conducted—and reported—their actual study procedures.
  • If you are interested in the actual measurements and numbers the study found, look at the results section, especially the tables and figures.
  • No matter what, most readers should take at least a quick look at the discussion section. This is where the authors explain what’s really important—what the study means to the larger research community, what we have learned from the study, and what we still need to learn more about in the future.

Reading research can seem intimidating at first, but if you think of it as a structured format for delivering specific types of information (rather than a story to be read from start to finish), you’ll be well on your way.