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Abstract and introduction

In this article, Joanna Kaniewska explains how to read scientific papers.

To enhance communication among scientists and to make the replication of a study easier, published research generally follows an established format: abstract, introduction, methodology, results, discussion and references (although exactly where information appears in different articles can vary).

At the end of this week, you’ll have the chance to read a whole scientific paper and use the skills you’ve acquired to analyse the main results and conclusion of the study. Before you do this, it’s important to understand the different sections of a scientific paper.

Over the next three Steps, you’ll look at each section in turn, describe what it is and what it’s for, and highlight important information to look for and questions to ask yourself or to pose to experts.

Let’s start with the abstract and the introduction.


The abstract serves to describe briefly what was studied, how it was done, and the results. It allows readers to make a judgement about whether a study is of interest, without having to read the complete paper. If only we could just skim the abstract and consider our review of the study complete! Unfortunately, that is not the case. Abstracts don’t provide sufficient detail to enable readers to assess the validity of a study, or put it into context. Only reading the rest of the paper can do these.


The introduction sets the scene. It eases the reader into the research by presenting the issue that the researcher seeks to answer or the problem/hypothesis that the study addresses. It explains why the study was conducted which gives the reader an indication of its potential importance. It also expands on how the research was conducted.

In some instances you may find that the study doesn’t seem to be appropriately designed or conducted to achieve its purpose. For example, the type of study (see Step 1.11) might not provide the information needed to answer the question the researcher set out to answer, or the population surveyed may not fit the purpose.

Source of potential bias. Self-reported data, for instance, through the use of food frequency questionnaires, can introduce response bias. People tend to over/under-report, or simply forget. Read the 'conflicts of interest' section towards the end of the paper to judge if there was any potential bias.

Here are some key questions to bear in mind when reading an introduction:

  • What are the limitations of this type of study?

  • Does the research design fit the stated purpose of the study?

  • Has the author left anything out of the introduction that could affect the study design or interpretation of the results?

In the next Step, you’ll look at the methodology and results part of a scientific paper. Don’t forget to ‘mark as complete’ before you move on.

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