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How to Prepare for a Conference

Edited from a text by Dr. Chris Widnell on "How To Read A Paper"

Remember that very few individual papers generate a Nobel Prize on their own. Anything you read is likely to represent a single small contribution to a field. What is important is to develop an open but critical approach to reading papers which enable you to judge the extent to which the data presented in a paper supports the author's conclusions. As you become better informed you should also develop the ability to distinguish important contributions from the mundane.

  • Start with the title and then the abstract, since this will show what the authors' want you to believe they have accomplished.
  • Proceed to the Introduction. This should set the stage for the significance of the work and also provide you with citations of review articles that describe the background. Frequently one also finds the clearest statement of the question or hypothesis being addressed near the end of the introduction.
  • Go next to the Discussion. Here the authors will focus on their key experiments and explain the basis for their interpretation. This will involve both discussion of the important controls they perform and relevant results from other laboratories that support their claims.
  • Now you should go to the Methods section to make sure that you understand how the experiments were actually done. Do not get bogged down at this stage, as many of the references that are cited may represent the beginning of the paper-chase. If you do not understand how the experiments were done, ask your preceptor or one of the lecturers.
  • You are now ready to read the Results. You should emerge from reading the results with a clear picture of what was done and what they actually show.
  • Now reread the Discussion, going back to the Results as you do so, to make sure that you have a thorough understanding of the major conclusions and the supporting data. Be on the lookout for attempts by the authors to over-interpret their data.

Each conference will work only if everyone has read and thought about the paper. The idea is to have a lively discussion with everyone making comments or asking questions. The discussion may focus on a problem with the results, such as a missing control, or an alternative interpretation of the results the authors failed to consider. One might also suggest a logical next experiment to continue the research, consider the significance of the paper and perhaps relate its findings to a different field of investigation.