It’s common knowledge that scientific papers are – well sometimes hard to get through. Even as an experienced researcher who might partake in a journal club, you often struggle to completely understand a difficult paper.

In this brief article, we’ll discuss our best tips on what to do when you come across a paper that is too difficult to understand.

Why are Scientific Papers Difficult to Read?

Scientific papers are hard to read because they contain:

  • High density of information
  • Multi-syllable words
  • Scientific jargons for a particular field of study
  • Complex concepts
  • Unfamiliar terms and techniques

What to do when a Scientific Paper is too difficult to Read

1.Investigate the Difficult Part

When reading a scientific paper, you may find unfamiliar terminology and concepts even techniques, which can discourage you from reading further.

One way to tackle this problem is to take a quick break when you start to get frustrated with it.

After you’re ready to open the paper again, take your time to investigate the unfamiliar terms or concepts and write them down. To understand them, you may have to find and read some additional papers, or you may need to open your textbooks to refresh your memory.

how to read hard scientific papers

Pro-Tip: Look for review papers on these topics. Review papers can be helpful in breaking down new concepts to help give you a better introductory understanding. For unfamiliar techniques, check the list of references and read the cited papers containing the details about the techniques.

2.Take Notes

A paper can also be hard to read due to the high density of information presented in one article. Unlike a sentence in your textbook, a sentence in a scientific article can have a combination of two or more complicated ideas.

To absorb the content of the paper, it’s not enough to just highlight the important information on the paper—you must take notes.

However, avoid rewriting each sentence used by the author. Use your own words to capture and process the information you read.

how to read hard scientific papers

Pro-Tip: You can also make a special notebook, dedicated for literature review. This notebook can be useful for future use when you need to prepare your own manuscript and cite relevant papers for the introduction part.

3.Discuss the Paper

Oftentimes, no matter how much effort and time you put into reading a certain paper, it‘s still hard for you to understand it. The best way to handle this problem is by discussing the paper with your mentor, postdocs, or other graduate students in your lab. They may share their knowledge and helpful insights to help you understand the paper.

how to read difficult papers

Tips for Reading a Difficult Scientific Paper

  • Create a habit of reading scientific papers. To start, aim for reading one new paper per day. Then, slowly increase the number, but make sure it’s realistic.
  • Read the paper two or three times to have a better understanding of complicated ideas.
  • Avoid highlighting each sentence on the article and mark only the most important information.
  • Take notes of important information you learn from the paper. Some strategies you can use for taking notes are the Cornell method for exploring the introduction part and the Mapping method for visualizing the materials and methods.
  • Summarize and write what you understand from the paper by using your own words.
  • Find the link between the paper and your research, if possible. Perhaps, you can also get something out of the paper that could be useful for your research, for example: more improved methods.
  • Appreciate how much science has progressed when you compared and connect the paper you are currently reading with papers you previously read.

To learn more about a strategy to tackle scientific papers, find GoldBio article below:

What is a Good Way to Read a Scientific Paper?


Ball, P. (2017). It’s not just you: science papers are getting harder to read. Nature.

‌How to (seriously) read a scientific paper. (2017, December 8). Science | AAAS.

Hubbard, K. E., & Dunbar, S. D. (2017). Perceptions of scientific research literature and strategies for reading papers depend on academic career stage. PLOS ONE, 12(12), e0189753.

Fosmire, M. (n.d.). How to Read a Scientific Paper [PDF]. West Lafayette: Purdue University Libraries. Designed an illustrated by Aly Edmondson. Accessed (Nov. 19, 2020) from:

Ruben, A., Jan. 20, 2016, & Pm, 3:15. (2016, January 20). How to read a scientific paper. Science | AAAS.

‌Scientific Papers | Learn Science at Scitable. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2020, from