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Interdisciplinary Research Resources

Reading Science & Social Science Articles

Law students are accustomed to being presented with a topic, examining all sides of it, and zealously advocating their point of view or interpretation. When asked to do research in the sciences or social sciences, they're confronted with an entirely different academic tradition. Scientific literature is very different from legal literature - instead of discussing and analyzing a topic and coming to a conclusion about it, scientific articles describe studies and report their results. While these articles often suggest some possible interpretations of the study results, scientific research is cautious; it doesn't advocate for or against specific points of view, just describes what happened.

If you haven't done science or social science research before, it's easy to get confused when trying to read a scientific article. This page will give you a few pointers on how to identify the key points of a study and incorporate them into your paper.

  • Read the abstract - every scientific paper starts with an abstract. Never skip the abstract! It will tell you at a glance if you need to bother with the full article.
  • Read the conclusion or discussion first (after the abstract) - this may be all you need. If you're just doing an overview of the research, you don't necessarily need to know every detail about the study.
  • Understand the field - at least what it is, if not the terminology. Know what kind of research the field covers; for example, you're unlikely to find research on economic scarcity in a neurology article.
  • Look up key words - you don't need to know all of the obscure terms, but if something's in the article title or shows up a lot, you should probably know what it means.
  • Keep your topic in mind - don't let yourself get lost in unfamiliar terminology and a maze of citations. Have a clear idea of what you need from the article - why are you reading it? Does it have the information you need? If not, move on.
  • Check the references - just like legal articles, scientific articles cite other research on the same subject. Looking at those citations can be a good way to find more articles related to your topic.
  • Summarize the article in your own words - if you find a good article, don't just copy the citation into a document; add a few words describing it and why it's significant for your topic. When you go back to look at your research before starting your paper, these summaries will make it much easier to remember why you wanted to include that study.