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Gerstein Science Information Centre

Science Literacy

Evaluating science in our daily lives

It seems like every day another 'groundbreaking' scientific study is reported in the news - but sometimes it can be really hard to:

  • identify whether or not a reported study's findings and everyday impact have been misrepresented or exaggerated
  • determine if the original study being reported was conducted well and if its results can be trusted
  • understand its true impact on our everyday lives

Some questions to ask yourself the next time you see a clickbait headline debating the existence of climate change, a bestselling wellness book by a celebrity, or an ad for a new wonder diet pill:

  • Does the social media post or product packaging try to use scientific-sounding language to seem more legitimate? Tactics like ‘scienceploitation’ are often used to push questionable health treatments
  • If you're reading a news article, do other scientific experts provide their opinion and explain what a study's findings could mean for the real world? Just ONE study on 10 people what works for the general population
  • Is just one source or a single study being cited as definitive proof of their position? More often than note, a poorly-constructed, single study is cherry-picked and then amplified to justify a cause - such as anti-vaccination believers citing Andrew Wakefield's long-debunked study alleging a connection between autism and the measles vaccine 
  • Ask yourself if it's believable because the science seems sound, or if it just might be a case of confirmation bias - that is, you're more inclined to believe what you're hearing and ignore any proof to the contrary, because it reinforces your preconceptions about something 

For more help with separating scientific fact from myths, check out:

See also: How to I spot fake news?


Adapted from How can I spot misinformation about the coronavirus and COVID-19?

How to Read a Scientific Journal Article

Scientific journal articles can be harder to read and fully understand. One thing that will help is to understand how they are structured, and what kinds of information can be found in each type of section. 

Most scientific journals format their articles in a standard way; breaking them into clearly defined and labelled sub-sections. Once you have learned what sections contain what information, you can very quickly navigate yourself through any article.

The Introduction and Discussion sections are good places to look for general information and an overview of the important issues.

For a quick overview of the parts of a scholarly article, click on the link below to see an example of a scholarly article and its parts. We will look at the different parts more closely on the rest of this page:

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article (NCSU Libraries)

  • Tip: Some journals also offer plain language summaries (some examples from Future Medicine) or infographics to help explain an article's complex ideas in a simpler, non-scientific language, and sometimes in a more visual way.

Check to see if the article you're interested also has this version to look at too.

Here is one approach to reading a scholarly article:How to Read a Scholarly Article

1. Read the abstract: 

An abstract is a summary of the article, and will give you an idea of what the article is about and how it will be written. If there are lots of complicated subject-specific words in the abstract, the article will be just as hard to read.

2. Read the conclusion: 

This is where the author will repeat all of their ideas and their findings. Some authors even use this section to compare their study to others. By reading this, you will notice a few things you missed, and will get another overview of the content.

3. Read the first paragraph or the introduction: 

This is usually where the author will lay out their plan for the article and describe the steps they will take to talk about their topic. By reading this, you will know what parts of the article will be most relevant to your topic!

4. Read the first sentence of every paragraph: 

These are called topic sentences, and will usually introduce the idea for the paragraph that follows. By reading this, you can make sure that the paragraph has information relevant to your topic before you read the entire thing. 

5. The rest of the article:

Now that you have gathered the idea of the article through the abstract, conclusion, introduction, and topic sentences, you can read the rest of the article!

*Used with permission from the Undergraduate Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Adapted from EESC24 Advanced Readings in Environmental ScienceBIO120: Adaptation and Biodiversity

Evaluating Journal Articles

Sometimes it can be hard to figure out whether a scientific study is well-conducted.

Next time you read a scientific journal article, keep these criteria in mind:

Accuracy

Is this article fact or opinion?

Are counter-arguments acknowledged?

Are the results accurate and are they supported by the data and methodology presented?

Does this support or contradict other articles?

Are references to other works given?

Authority

Is the author an expert in this field?

What other works has he/she written?

Can you find out more about the author?  What is his/her background?

Has this author been cited by others?

Bias

Some publications have an inherent bias that will impact articles printed in them. Can you determine this from looking at the journal?

Is the author's point of view impartial and objective? Are counter-arguments acknowledged?

Audience level

What audience is the article designed for?

Is it too basic or too technical for your needs?

Currency

It is usually easy to determine the publication date of an article.


Adapted from BIO120: Adaptation and Biodiversity