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HOW TO READ A PAPER FROM THE PRIMARY ECOLOGICAL LITERATURE by Michael Palmer August 28, 1994 modified after notes by James Thompson, SUNY

1) Do not read a paper chronologically! Read it in the following order:

a) Author’s names and year b) Introduction c) Abstract d) Discussion e) Results f) Methods

Item a) above sounds unusual - why not read the title? It turns out that people are very important. Ecologists generally refer to a paper by the author’s names and the year, and often forget the title. Make a habit of looking for the author’s institutional affiliation. This will help you learn where the major centers of research are in various aspects of ecology.

Read b) through d) repeatedly as necessary. These sections usually define the intellectual context of the paper. They will also stress the implications and the relevance the author believes his/her work has for the wider scientific community.

Read e) and f) to evaluate the work technically. Do the experiments prove or indicate what the authors claim they do? Are there major limitations? Then read the discussion again. Do not be preoccupied with  details. The detail is presented to allow highly expert readers to evaluate the technical quality of the research. This detail is not generally easily interpretable by people new to the field, and is often not relevant to understanding the more important scientific objectives and the strategies of the authors. 2) Decide exactly which technical details are relevant to understanding the author’s argument. Then study those particular details. It may be necessary at this point to consult other primary and secondary literature to retrieve critical details. The author will cite such literature (if they have not, the paper never should have been published!) 3) Analyze the paper by answering the following questions to your satisfaction:

a) What is the argument of the author(s)? Remember, the author would usually say.

b) What experimental strategies did the authors use to achieve their objectives? Only describe the most relevant details.

c) Do you believe the evidence is conclusive or merely suggestive?

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