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Reading the research (simplified)

September 1, 2020 0 Comments

I apologize that the blog has been mostly dormant once again. My university’s sudden move to online instruction in the spring, and an all-consuming research project, have meant I had little time for writing. But while I have been unproductive, others have not! This past year has seen an impressive number of papers published on horse color. The pace of discoveries in both horses and other domestic animals would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago. For that reason, I thought I would do a series of posts on some of the findings.

Before I do that, however, I wanted to do a more general post about scientific literature. When I was actively blogging, the most common request was to translate newly released papers in “plain English.” Scientific papers can be intimidating, especially for anyone unfamiliar with them. When you know how they are structured, and the reasons behind the different parts, they are not quite so scary.

One helpful way to think about scientific papers is to see it as just another writing genre with its own conventions. Their purpose is to communicate the results of research studies. For that reason, they are written for a particular audience: other scientists. This can make papers seem more difficult than they are. When in doubt, start with the introduction and skip to the discussion. Those two sections are usually the most accessible to non-scientists. You can tackle the middle sections as you feel more confident. Don’t feel bad if it takes multiple readings before something makes sense. I have been reading papers for decades, and I still do this!

Sections of a Scientific Paper

Because one of the tricks to simplifying research papers is reading the sections out of order, understanding their structure is helpful. Papers have a prescribed format, sometimes referred to as IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion).

Introduction — Making the Case for the Research

The introduction contains two critical elements. The first is the research question. Scientific research starts with a question, and that can be found here with some background for context. The other part of the introduction is the literature review. Science is fundamentally a collaborative exercise, with each researcher building on the work of those who came before them. That is why published papers are so central to science. The literature review will summarize the work to date that is relevant to the research question. This practice of setting discoveries in the context of prior research has some implications for our area of interest when it comes to naming genes and colors. That is because it tends to “lock in” the first-used term even if later discoveries make it seem less fitting. Because the assumed audience is other scientists, there is less concern about “outdated” terms creating confusion.

Methods — What Did the Researcher Do?

This section usually opens with a description of the sample population. For papers that concern horse color, this usually has information about the number of horses used and their breed. Individual horses are not usually identified by name. After describing the sample group, there is a discussion of how the genetic material was collected and analyzed. This tends to be the most technical part of a paper.

Results — What Did the Researcher Find?

This is where the data from the analysis is reported. This is supposed to be done in a very matter-of-fact manner; commentary comes in the next section.

Discussion — What Do the Results Mean?

This is often the most useful part of a paper because it is where the authors interpret their results. The authors will also spell out any limitations of the study and may mention avenues for further research.

Other Elements

There are other elements in research papers that are not included in the IMRaD acronym. These are:


This is a summary of the paper. Its primary purpose is to let a reader know if the full article might be useful for their inquiry. When a study is behind a paywall, this is usually the only accessible portion.


This lists the publications cited in the paper. If a topic interests you, use the Reference section to find related studies. Prior studies – even much older ones – are useful for understanding context. Competing hypotheses are common in science, and conflicting results do not mean that one of the researchers has been “discredited.” Often it just means the answer is complex, and there is more to be uncovered before the big picture makes sense.

Supplementary Material

Not all papers have supplementary material – and not all publishers make it easy to find! – but look for this. Questions like, “I wonder how many Arabians they tested?” or “Did they check for KIT mutations?” are sometimes answered in charts or spreadsheets included as supplementary material.

So Let’s Dive In!

Now that we have some background on how scientific discoveries are reported, I want to get started on one of the recent papers. This one is about the mealy, or pangare, pattern. The cute Exmoor Pony at the top of this post is an excellent example of the mealy pattern (and sooty, which is a topic for a later day.) I talked a little bit about mealy in an archived post called “The Law of the Soft White Underbelly.” A recent study found a candidate gene for mealy, and that will be the subject of the next post.

By lkathman

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