How many times has someone told you that you should be reading research? Depending on how long you have been a massage therapist, it may be somewhere between five and 200 times. These people aren’t wrong; but how many of them told you how to read it? It sounds like a simple task: go to a reputable source, pick an article and read the article. 

How many times has someone told you that you should be reading research? Depending on how long you have been a massage therapist, it may be somewhere between five and 200 times. These people aren’t wrong; but how many of them told you how to read it? It sounds like a simple task: go to a reputable source, pick an article and read the article. 

Describing reading research in those three steps is like describing grocery shopping as “make a list, go to the store, buy the groceries.” We all know there are dozens of small steps that are being glossed over: How did you make the list? Did you have to make substitutions? Did you forget your reusable bags in your car again? Did you get distracted by the cookie selection? Did you almost take drastic action with the person who left their cart in front of that cookie selection?

Much like grocery shopping, reading research is a surprisingly emotional experience, and some of the emotions aren’t the fun ones. As Adam Ruben states in the article “How to read a scientific paper,” “Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article.”

Remember, this experience is universal. Everyone started in the same place: staring at a paper with a large, figurative question mark over their heads. Understanding research literature is a skill; and skills take time and effort to develop. Let’s begin by breaking down the tasks into three smaller components.

How to Start Reading Research Papers

1. Acknowledge the challenge. The first step in reading research is to stop pretending that it’s simple and straightforward. Have you stopped? Good.

2. Take it Easy. Next, make it as easy on yourself as possible. Here is a list of things you can do to help the process:

• Print the article. For your own sake, don’t try to read it on a screen. To save paper, don’t print the reference pages yet, but do grab a couple of blank sheets for notes.

• Change the font. Often you can copy and paste the whole thing into a computer document and choose a size, typeface, and line spacing that makes sense for you.

• Happily write all over the paper you just printed. The only books you should never write in are the ones that belong to other people. Everything else is fair game for your pencils, pens, highlighters, stickers, etc.

• Set your phone to “do not disturb.” Lock any apps that tend to distract you for at least 40 minutes. 

• Read with the Pomodoro Technique: set a timer for 25 minutes, take a one- to five-minute movement break, then work for another 25 minutes. If 25 minutes a too long, try 15. You don’t have to read the whole paper in one go.

• Find a quiet place to read with a nice amount of light.

• Use Speechify or other text-to-voice technology if listening is easier for you.

• Understand your sound needs: Perfect silence? Music? Anything with words (in any language) will distract your brain, so avoid lyrics. 

• Do not do this when you’re hungry or tired. All thinking requires glucose for energy; and you have a limited amount to utilize at given times. Starting with your tank on E is a good way to become frustrated. You may even want to have a snack while you read; but stay away from foods that might cause you to crash in the middle of your work. 

3. Read! Step three is reading. This guide is specific to articles concerned with the process of research. There are many other kinds of scientific articles: case studies, meta-analysis, concept reviews, editorials, etc.; and they share similar characteristics.

Articles reporting on research are usually written in the same format with intro, methods, results, discussion and conclusion sections. Here is a formula to start working with, but it is by no means the only way to navigate. As you practice this new skill you’re developing, you’ll figure out what works best for you. 

While you read the article, use your highlighter for two things in particular: keeping track of citation numbers attached to sentences that you find intriguing, and words you don’t know or for which you cannot immediately remember the definition. Look those words up the moment you come across them: they will make a huge difference in your understanding. Write them on your note paper. As you continue to practice you will have to look up fewer and fewer words.

How to Start Reading Research Papers: The Article

•  Skip the abstract for now. Abstracts are to research papers what dust jackets are to novels: their purpose is to attract you to read the content, not to tell you the whole story. Reading the abstract can lend a false sense of accomplishment, and you might be tempted to give yourself a pass. “Well, I read the abstract, so I have a handle on the topic.”  Functionally, abstracts are most useful for skimming many articles in order to create a compilation of research to read in-depth. You’ve already chosen this article, so the abstract has done its job.

• Read the introduction. Figure out what the goal of the research was. What is the main question they are asking? What are any secondary questions? Write them down in the margins or on your notepaper. 

• Read the methods section. Your goal reading this section is not to skim, it is to understand what happened well enough to describe it to someone else. Use one of your spare papers to draw it. Talk out loud to yourself. Talk out loud to your pets. Cut your notepaper into pieces or use notecards if you’re struggling to put it together. The only wrong way to organize information is to not do it at all. 

• Read the results section. Did they find enough data to answer their questions? Does the data make sense? Do you think they forgot to track any variables? What do you think the data says? The most difficult part about the results section is usually the statistics involved. Take the time to find out what the terms mean. YouTube is a good place to find short videos on individual statistical concepts.

• When searching YouTube, choose the videos with the most views first. Statistics do not go out of style, so the age of the video isn’t important. Try searching for the term “statistically significant.” Both Khan Academy and CrashCourse tend to have solid, well-presented information, but don’t limit yourself to those two brands. You may find a creator that you really like. Feel free to use the video player settings to turn on the captions, speed up or slow down the video if that helps. 

• Read the discussion section. This key section is where the analysis and interpretation of the data are highlighted. Does their explanation of what happened make sense? Did they have a result at all? If they did have results, how does this information fit into what you already know? If they didn’t, what does that tell you?

• Read the conclusion section. What follow up questions do they have? What follow up questions do you have? Do you think they made mistakes? Do you feel content has been left out? How much confidence do you have in this study?

• Go back and write down all of the citation numbers you highlighted. Now you have a guide to find your next article!

Don’t give up! Sometimes your brain needs time to ruminate on new information. You may read a paragraph four times, still have no idea what it says, and throw up your hands in frustration. Upon re-reading a couple days later that paragraph might make perfect sense. The only thing that changed was your brain, and how neat is that?

How to Start Reading Research Papers: Get Started!

If you’re looking for a place to start practicing, try these Research Tools from the Massage Therapy Foundation, then read these articles from the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork :

Borges de Souza, PhD, TP, Fumiko Sato Kurebayashi, PhD, L., Nery de Souza-Talarico, PhD, J., & Natalia Teresa Turrini, PhD, R. (2021). The effectiveness of Chair Massage on Stress and Pain in Oncology. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork: Research, Education, &Amp; Practice, 14(3), 27–38.

Joseph, PhD, L. H., Hancharoenkul, MSc, PT, B., Sitilertpisan, PhD, P., Pirunsan, PhD, U., & Paungmali, PhD, A. (2018). Effects of Massage as a Combination Therapy with Lumbopelvic Stability Exercises as Compared to Standard Massage Therapy in Low Back Pain: a Randomized Cross-Over Study. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork: Research, Education, &Amp; Practice, 11(4), 16–22.

Massingill, LMT, MLD, CST, KT, NMT, J., Jorgensen, LMT, C., Dolata, MBA, J., & Sehgal, MD, A. R. (2018). Myofascial Massage for Chronic Pain and Decreased Upper Extremity Mobility After Breast Cancer Surgery. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork: Research, Education, &Amp; Practice, 11(3), 4–9.

About the Author

Corey Rivera, LMT, a practicing a massage therapist with background as an opera singer, medical student, small business owner and visual designer. She wrote this article on behalf of the Massage Therapy Foundation. She is passionate about effective communication and is a volunteer with Massage Therapy Foundation’s Writing Committee and works as the education coordinator for Healwell.