How to Make Sense of Scientific Studies About Coronavirus 如何读懂关于冠状病毒的科学文献
Carl Zimmer 卡尔·齐默
A lot of people are reading scientific papers for the first time these days， hoping to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic. If you're one of them， be advised the scientific paper is a peculiar literary genre that can take some getting used to.
When natural philosophers sent their letters to 17th century journals， the editors decided whether they were worth publishing or not. But after 200 years of scientific advances， Victorian scientists could no longer be experts on everything. Journal editors sent papers to outside specialists who understood the details of a particular branch of research better than most scientists.
By the mid-1900s， this practice evolved into what's known as peer review. A journal would publish a paper only after a panel of outside experts decided it was acceptable. Sometimes the reviewers rejected the paper outright; other times they required the fixing of weak points – either by revising the paper or doing additional research.
Papers typically open with some history， giving a justification for the new research they contain. The authors then lay out the methods they used to carry out that research – how they eavesdropped on lions， how they measured chemicals in Martian dust. Then the papers present results， followed by a discussion of what those results mean. Scientists will typically point out the shortcomings in their own research and offer ideas for new studies to see if their interpretations hold water.
As a science writer， I've been reading scientific papers for 30 years. I'd guess that I've read tens of thousands of them， in search of new advances to write about， or to do background research for stories. While I'm not a scientist myself， I've gotten pretty comfortable navigating around them.
One lesson I've learned is that it can take work to piece together the story underlying a paper. If I call scientists and simply ask them to tell me about what they've done， they can offer me a riveting narrative of intellectual exploration. But on the page， we readers have to assemble the story for ourselves.
The coronavirus pandemic now presents an extra challenge: there are far more papers than anyone could ever read. If you use a tool like Google Scholar， you may be able to zero in on some of the papers that are already getting cited by other scientists. They can provide the outlines of the past few months of scientific history – the isolation of the coronavirus， for example， the sequencing of its genome， the discovery that it spreads quickly from person to person even before symptoms emerge. Papers like these will be cited by generations of scientists yet to be born.
Most won't， though. When you read through a scientific paper， it's important to maintain a healthy scepticism. The ongoing flood of papers that have yet to be peer-reviewed – known as preprints – includes a lot of weak research and misleading claims. Some are withdrawn by the authors. Many will never make it into a journal. But some of them are earning sensational headlines before burning out in obscurity.
When you read a scientific paper， try to think about it the way scientists do. Ask some basic questions to judge its merit. Is it based on a few patients or thousands？ Is it mixing up correlation and causation？ Do the authors actually present the evidence required to come to their conclusions？
Science has always travelled down a bumpy road. Now it is in an extraordinary rush， with the world looking for every new preprint and peer-reviewed paper in the hope that some clue will emerge that helps save millions of lives.
Yet our current plight does not change the nature of the scientific paper. It's never a revelation of absolute truth. At best， it's a status report on our best understanding of nature's mysteries.