How to Read a Scientific Paper, for Non-Scientists

So you have to read a scientific paper. Don’t panic! These great sources are here to help guide you through every step of the process.

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

As part of my efforts to include more science literacy-focused blog posts here on Read More Science, I’d like to share some guides to reading scientific papers. Being able to work your way through these difficult articles, which are essential to research and understanding cutting-edge developments in the scientific fields, are a big part of becoming science literate.

Reading scientific papers is a skill anyone with a some time on their hands and a little curiosity can develop. Start by reading this great article called The Non-Scientist’s Guide to Reading and Understanding a Scientific Paper.

In it, the author suggests “Reading [scientific] articles will help you make more informed decisions in the areas of life that concern you, and better understand and participate in the public debate about important scientific issues. Here are the basic steps: focus on the big picture the scientists are addressing; read the Abstract, Introduction, and Discussion, in that order; think critically about the conclusions the scientists make; conduct follow-up research.”

Another great source on how to read a scientific paper can be found on The Open Notebook, How to Read a Scientific Paper. This handy guide explains each part of a paper and how to understand it, as well as how to approach reading the entire piece without drowning in terms you don’t understand.

The author writes, “These tips and tricks will work whether you’re covering developmental biology or deep-space exploration. The key is to familiarize yourself with the framework in which scientists describe their discoveries, and to not let yourself get bogged down in detail as you’re trying to understand the overarching point of it all.”

If you’re just doing some research for a class or a short piece you’re writing, and you just want a simple, easy-to-grasp guide , the Northcentral University Library has a nice one called Reading a Scientific Article. Geared toward students or the layperson, it’s formatted to get you through the article and ask critical-thinking questions to ensure you understand the material.

What I like about the Northcentral University Library is that their guide has additional resources, such as a video on How to Read Scientific Literature. For those who enjoy listening and watching a tutorial, this is a great resource.

Are you ready to read some scientific papers now? I hope the next time you’re skimming the news and see an interesting headline about a development in science, you consider seeking out the original source and reading the paper yourself. It’s a great way to test your science literacy skills!

Personal Branding for Scientists and Science Communicators

Scientists and science communicators use the internet to connect with audiences and share our work, so developing a personal brand online is more important than ever. I talked with author and marketing expert Cynthia Johnson about her new book Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding (Feb 2019) to learn more about how science communicators can benefit from developing their personal brand. In addition, Cynthia and her wonderful publisher have provided a copy of Platform for a giveaway! With this book, you can learn how to develop and maintain a personal brand that benefits your style of science communication, whether you’re an undergraduate or running your own lab.

Here’s my interview with Cynthia Johnson about personal branding. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of her book, check with your local bookstore or find it online.

“Personal branding…has nothing to do with what you do for people or what you say about yourself. It has everything to do with how you make people feel, how you engage with them, and what they say about you to your face and to others.

Cynthia Johnson

Sarah Olson: What is a personal brand and why is it essential for today’s social media-focused world?

Cynthia Johnson: Your personal brand is made up of four pillars; personal proof, social proof, recognition, and association. The personal proof is your opinion of yourself and your relationship with your own abilities, accomplishments, and goals. Social proof refers to the things that you have done to prove to others that you are capable of new opportunities. Recognition is the reinforcement for both social proof and personal proof. Lastly, association is focused on how you relate to, are compared to, and categorized based on the people, organizations, and communities that you associate yourself with. When you add all of these items together and add the perception of an outsider looking in, you have your personal brand. The collection of moments and choices in our lives presented to another person (or people) for the purpose of growth and new opportunities.

SO: Why is building your personal brand important?

CJ: A personal brand is self-awareness, self-promotion, and self-preservation. It is the first impression that we can control and the vehicle that can be a tool for growth if it is managed properly and even minimally, but if it is not managed can harm growth opportunities. I look at personal branding as the evolution of cover letters, applications, CV’s, and resumes. If we want upward mobility and opportunity in our lives, we have to start accepting that people are looking us up online before they ever agree to meet with us. We have to put our best foot forward just as we would dress for an interview. Being prepared and aware is what changes our careers and allows for opportunity to find us.

SO: What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur in science trying to build their following on social media?

CJ: Don’t focus on building a following, focus on providing value to a specific group of people. Don’t try to be everywhere, pick one place and become effective there before you branch out. People who try to be everywhere burn out and end up doing nothing at all. Start with one goal and on one platform. Once you have become successful at that first step, then look at growth strategies.

SO: What if a reader is not an “influencer”? Is this book still relevant to them?

CJ: I see this book being useful for people who have limited time, a desire for change, and a need to be heard in a specific topic or industry that they are experts at. I see this book as the how-to, and why-to book for people who have very specific goals in mind or a very specific message and not a lot of time. This is not the book for people who want to be famous, but it will be very beneficial for those who want to be impactful.

SO: One of the dangers in online science communication is sharing misleading, false, or unsubstantiated information (whether on purpose or by accident). How can we protect our personal brand from public mistakes?

CJ: Slowing down is the most important solution to this problem. Most people do not want to steer people in the wrong direction or spread gossip. These well-intended people do this unintentionally because of lack of time, not reading the content thoroughly before sharing it, and associating themselves with companies, people, media, etc. that don’t reflect their personal values or beliefs. Don’t rush this process. You can be just as effective doing less and moving more slowly.

Are you interested in learning the skills and tools you need to make your personal brand stand out and shine? You can get entered to win a free copy of Platform and one of the new Read More Science bookmarks simply by signing up for the Read More Science Book Club, my monthly newsletter for science enthusiasts who love to read. Why should you sign up? Because by reading more books about science, you’ll also learn more about science communication! Seems like a pretty good deal.

Follow my Twitter at @ReadMoreScience and Cynthia Johnson at @cynthialive.

Here’s my review of Platform: The Art and Science of Personal Branding and details on how you can win a copy:

I genuinely think this is a book that could benefit the SciComm community. Cynthia Johnson puts entrepreneurship and marketing skills into a brief and relevant book that anyone interested in building their personal brand could use. As scientists and science writers who use social media to build our name and communicate science, we can benefit from using these helpful strategies. That’s why I’m hosting a giveaway of this book!

Through personal anecdote and interesting research, Cynthia develops her case for why personal branding is an essential skill in the twenty-first century. Her ideas transcend the world of business and entrepreneurship – they’re applicable to anyone interested in updating their LinkedIn or growing a following on social media. In a world where employers pay attention to interviewee’s online presence, it’s more important than ever that we learn to manage and maintain our online personas. Cynthia equips readers with the tools they need to do just that – and to shine at it as well.

I enjoyed how brief a read this book is. As a reader, you coast through it without being bogged down by an information overload. My only note is that Cynthia does seem to digress now and then into stories that are almost irrelevant, though she does seem to eventually come full circle.

This is a book that is useful for anyone venturing into personal branding. If you’re interested in winning a copy, sign up for the Read More Science monthly newsletter between Monday, March 18th and Friday, March 22 for your chance to win. I will be randomly selecting one of the new subscribers to the email list and will announce the winner Monday, March 25th.

Remembering The Black Woman Whose Cells Changed Science

I hosted a giveaway of a paperback copy and a handmade cell bookmark on Twitter.

Henrietta Lacks was all but lost to history when science writer Rebecca Skloot became fascinated with her untold story. Determined to share the history behind the woman whose cells greatly impacted science and medicine, Skloot set out to make contact with the Lacks family. At the time, she had no idea the adventure she would be in for.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the Read More Science Book Club pick for February, which is Black History Month. Henrietta Lacks is the woman whose cancerous cervical cells, HeLa, have been growing and growing since her body died long ago. In her book, Skloot explores how Henrietta died and why the doctors ended up with her cells, why they are so extraordinary, and how they have changed cell research. She also investigates how the wide use of HeLa has impacted the Lacks family, who live in poverty and have not seen any of the money that HeLa cells made.

Although the book was published nearly a decade ago in 2010, its exploration of race and socioeconomic issues, as well as ethical concerns, are deeply relevant to our world today. The book resonates powerfully with readers who care about making sure women, especially women of color, are not lost to history. By bringing Henrietta Lacks to life, Skloot has ensured that Henrietta Lacks will no longer be reduced to her cells.

Skloot’s book is simultaneously an exciting narrative-driven expedition to uncover the story of Henrietta Lacks and help her family discover the truth behind everything that happened to her, as well as a biography of a young black woman. It’s a well-written, perfectly paced, and profound piece of journalism. Whatever good things you may have heard about this book, it’s even better than that when you read it.

There were chills crawling down my spine when I read the introduction and Skloot explains why, ever since she heard Henrietta Lacks’ name in a college lecture, she’s been fascinated with her story:

How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?” Deborah [Henrietta’s daughter] would say. “She was trying to get your attention.” This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing the book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.

At the end of the introduction, Skloot emphasized that, in many ways, her book transcended simply the story of Henrietta herself.

The Lackses challenged everything I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family – particularly Deborah – and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Ultimately, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a profound and intimate examination of the treatment of black people by scientists in the twentieth century, the ethics of research and medicine, and the celebration of an extraordinary woman whose immortal cells changed history. It’s a book that every science enthusiast should have a copy of on their shelf.

Questioning the Future and Fairness of the Nobel Prize

In cosmologist Brian Keating’s memoir about his quest for the Nobel Prize, he uncovers the darker side of science’s highest honor, calling into question many ethical dilemmas surrounding the award and its rigorous qualifications. Losing the Nobel Prize is Keating’s illuminating journey in his quest for truth about the notorious prize, as well as his own research.

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Prize. By Brian Keating. W.W. Norton, Sept 2018. @ReadMoreScience

I chose Losing the Nobel Prize as January’s Read More Science Book Club pick. It was perfect to start off a year of reading more science. Keating’s book is part science memoir, part exploration into the history of the Nobel Prize.

Keating documents he and his team’s development of BICEP, a gravitational wave background telescope, their falling out, and his subsequent exclusion from BICEP2. In accessible, emotionally-vivid writing, he recounts feelings of excitement and disappointment upon hearing of BICEP2’s success — and his exclusion from even being credited for inventing the instrument in the first place. It’s a surprisingly gripping story of rivalry.

I read a not-so-great review of Keating’s book when it came out, and it initially turned me off towards the book. He was critiqued by other reviewers for coming across as resentful, or even vengeful — that by not receiving credit for his accomplishments, or because of the intense rivalry between scientific teams, he’s somehow blaming the Nobel Prize for his own failures. Then I found out Keating was critiquing the prize for reasons I wholeheartedly agree with, and I realized I absolutely had to read his book.

I did not interpret Keating’s book as some act of revenge or bitterness. In fact, by the end of it, I doubt very many readers will be mistaken that Keating’s intention was not to call-out other scientists he was frustrated with, or even to vent about not winning the prize. Perhaps a cosmologist or physicist would interpret it differently, but this is the way I read it. Instead, he calls into question several issues not just with the Nobel Prize, but with the field of physics.

Alfred Nobel, the wealthy inventor of dynamite, created the Nobel Prizes in his will and left an enormous sum of money for the awards. You can read a little bite more about the history of the prize and its creation here, but Keating summarizes it well in his book. Specifically, he focuses on Alfred Nobel’s original intentions for the prize — and how the award has strayed from them.

Though Keating’s book is structured around the narrative arch of his own experiences working on BICEP and recounting BICEP2’s story, he includes three chapters titled “Broken Lens” in which he explores a significant issue with the Nobel Prize. These were my favorite parts of the book, not only because they are well-written and thought out, but because they directly challenge an extremely powerful institution.

In the first Broken Lens, Keating mourns the death of Vera Rubin, who “was credited with the serendipitous discovery of dark matter.” Though she was considered “a shoo-in” for the 2016 prize, her death before the announcements ensured that she would not receive it: the Nobel cannot be awarded posthumously. This is just one of Keating’s frustrations with the prize.

The gender inequity in the Nobel Prize for physics is extremely apparent. In 2018, Donna Strickland became the third woman to ever win the prize. The last female recipient was Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963, and the first was Marie Curie in 1903. The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded 112 times.

Keating explores this issue at some depth — yes, there is a lack of women in the field of physics, but it’s not as if there are no women in physics. There needs to be more recruiting, more mentorship, more encouragement of the young woman pursuing career in the competitive world of physics. There needs to be more acknowledgement of the work female professionals in physics due – you may have head that Donna Strickland wasn’t considered important enough for a Wikipedia page.

But I won’t spoil the other two Broken Lens chapters. I think Keating makes persuasive enough arguments without me having to vouch for them here.

This is a great book for those interested in the rigors of physics and cosmology research. This is an excellent memoir for readers curious about the life and work of an accomplished scientist. I would recommend this book even for those simply curious about the Nobel Prize itself, its history, its alleged failures (and successes). And ultimately, I think Keating makes important, interesting arguments worth readers’ consideration.

Find a copy of Losing the Nobel Prize at your local bookstore, and enjoy your journey into the cosmos!

The 2018 Read More Science Book of the Year

This week I announced the nominees for the first Read More Science “Best Book of the Year”, my humble attempt to recognize outstanding science writing for the general public by an author who may represent a minority in the STEM fields. You can see the full list of nominees in my announcement.

The Read More Science Best Book of the Year is simply a way to acknowledge a book I see as incredibly relevant to our modern day, accessible for general readers, and deserving of more recognition. While I cannot possibly acknowledge every science book deserving of more recognition (as much as I would love to do that!), I hope that this effort will put the book in the hands of more readers.

I am pleased to announce that the recipient of this year’s award is Hannah Fry’s Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms

Hello World is incredibly relevant to today’s world and extremely accessible for readers who may never have read a pop science or technology book before. In easily comprehensible and succinct examples, Fry clearly defines algorithms, machine learning, neural networks, and artificial intelligence. Her book also addresses how our data is being used – gathered, sold, and manipulated in order to influence our behavior as consumers. If you’ve ever wondered why ads seem to target your previous purchases, if you’ve ever considered why so many apps are free and want to know what you’re exchanging your data for, then this is the book for you. Fry’s warm and down-to-earth voice guides readers through the tricky technology of our modern world, paying special attention to how the biases of programmers can infect the algorithms they design and lead to social injustices.

As a woman in mathematics and computer science, Hannah Fry provides younger women with an excellent role model. I also felt that she deserved recognition on the basis that she spends so much time dissecting how algorithms may be used in the justice system and how we can prevent our own racial and gender biases from affecting their objectivity. Her attention to such relevant social issues is a significant reason I chose Hello World for this year’s prize – in many ways, the book is an excellent representation of our world in 2018.

Announcing the First Annual Read More Science “Book of the Year”

Big-name male science writers have long dominated the bestseller lists of the New York Times and other large and well-known book review sources. With this award, my intention is to highlight and promote excellent and overlooked science writing by authors who may be minorities in the STEM fields. 

I’ve started the annual Read More Science “Book of the Year” as a way to acknowledge a new release in popular science that appeals to general readers by an author who deserves more recognition. The book will be featured in the last newsletter of the year (just in time for the holidays) and displayed on the home page of along with a short summary of why it was chosen. Although there will not be a “prize”, I will be promoting the book through social media and hope to provide a sticker of some kind as the award evolves. 

Without further ado, it is my pleasure to share the books that are under consideration:

Nominees for the 2018 Read More Science “Book of the Year” 

If 2018 could be described by a single phrase, it might be “overlooked no more”. This year gave us several wonderful histories of women who made significant contributions to the STEM fields but haven’t received proper recognition for their work. This year’s books also addressed biases both gender and racial in the fields of technology, artificial intelligence, sex robots, medicine, and the history of science itself. These books challenged conventional thought, delighted and outraged readers, and inspired varying degrees of controversy. These books are each truly a testament to the state of our world in 2018. I wish I could have featured more, because there were many books deserving of recognition!

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots by Kate Devlin


Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms by Hannah Fry

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans

Close Encounters With Humankind: A Paleoanthropologist Investigates our Evolving Species by Sang-Hee Lee


There you have it — this year’s nominees. I will be announcing the winning title this week, and those signed up for the Read More Science newsletter will be the first to receive the announcement. Get signed up and you’ll be automatically entered to win exciting titles like these every month! 

The Best Science Books for Holiday Gifting

Looking for science-themed gifts this holiday season? Consider giving one of these wonderful new nonfiction books as a present. Whether the recipient is an aspiring young scientist or the head of their own lab, these books are sure to captivate and inspire. Perhaps one will even end up on your own wish list this year!

This list is organized by the suggested gift recipient, and there’s something here for everyone. But keep in mind, good science writing often transcends the reader’s interests or passions. Don’t be afraid to try giving someone something new – you might just inspire them to start a new passion.

Remember to shop local this year to support independent bookstores!

The Best Books to Give This Holiday Season

For the fossil collector or paleontology enthusiast:

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Earth’s Ultimate Trophy Quest (Sept 2018) is a beautiful piece of narrative journalism by New Yorker writer Paige Williams. It follows the adventurous story of Eric Prokopi, who in 2012 tried to sell “a super Tyrannosaurus skeleton” from Mongolia. This book is all about the risky business of fossil collecting and smuggling. A riveting story about fossils.

For the climate change warrior:

This is the Way the World Ends: How Droughts and Die-offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes Are Converging on America (Sept 2018) by environmental expert Jeff Nesbit persuades its reader to consider the consequences of climate change: how, if we continue on our current path, we will lose our home here on Earth. A powerful new look at climate change.

For the one interested in artificial intelligence and data:

Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms (Sept 2018) by mathematics lecturer  and computer scientist Hannah Fry is a fascinating – and at times, startling – book about the presence of algorithms in our everyday lives: how they make (and influence our own) decisions. Wonderful introductory explanation of data science (including how our online data is used), artificial intelligence, and the use and function of algorithms. Very introductory approach to complex subjects.

For those who love whales and their history:

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures (June 2018) by paleobiologist Nick Pyenson is a fascinating look at the natural history of the whale. Pyenson, curator of the Smithsonian’s fossil whale collection, indulges readers with the details of life as a scientist in the field – discovering, digging up, and preserving fossils. Throughout the narrative, he shares the evolutionary history of whales – and makes predictions about what their future may entail. Wonderful and easy to read.

For the advocate (or skeptic) of gender equality in science:

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story (March 2018) by science journalist Angela Saini is a captivating, in-depth look at why women have been viewed as inferior for centuries. Through careful examinations of the pseudoscience fueling misconceptions and sexist stereotypes – set alongside recent research illustrating Saini’s points – she makes a persuasive argument we should give up the whole notion of women being inferior, biologically or otherwise. Firm, touching, and earnest read you could give to your best friend or your worst enemy. Buy yourself a copy while you’re at it – and if you’re feeling particularly generous, make a donation to this GoFundMe and get Saini’s book put in schools and the hands of young woman across the world.

For those raising a teenager:

Inventing Ourselves: the Secret Life of the Teenage Brain (May 2018) by neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is this year’s recipient of the Royal Society’s Science Book Prize. This book is particularly fascinating because Blakemore focuses on her own research, which specializes adolescents. This beautiful book educates the reader on how we form our identities and our selves throughout adolescence – and how we could be doing better at raising young adults. This is somewhat of a dense book, but full of interesting content and anecdotes from the author herself. Perfect for the educated and interested parent or curious adult individual. 

For the one who’s always saying, “Did you know…?”:

Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets to Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live (Nov 2018) by biologist and bestselling author Rob Dunn is best summarized as “A natural history of the wilderness in our homes, from the microbes in our showers to the crickets in our basements.” This captivating and educational book is sure to provide countless facts and figures to entertain and inform the know-it-all in your life. Great one to buy for yourself, too!

For the aspiring psychologist or lucid dreamer:

Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey (Nov 2018) by science journalist Alice Robb takes a look at the fascinating things happening in our brain while we dream. Her book explores the concept of lucid dreaming and its likely purpose according to neuroscience. An interesting and friendly introduction to neuropsychology and the science of sleep. 

For those interested in the science of psychedelics:

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (May 2018) by bestselling author and journalist Michael Pollan is a “brave adventure into the medical and scientific revolution taking place around psychedelic drugs”. This daring book is the perfect gift for an adventurous soul interested in challenging conventional thought and fascinated by the edge of science. 

That’s it for this year! If you feel a book deserves to be on this list, please leave a comment below sharing your recommendation and who you think it would make a great gift for. Help others find good science books!

Please note: All of these books were selected by myself independent of publisher influence or sponsorship. I received no compensation from the authors or their publishing houses for suggesting these titles. You know, just in case that might affect your gift-giving decisions somehow.