How to read a scientific COVID-19 document


This blog is partly based on the New York Times article “How to Read a Coronavirus Study, or Any Science Paper”. The original text has been supplemented in some places and shortened in others. Text passages from the original are marked in italics.

In recent months we have seen not only the exponential multiplication of a virus, but also the almost exponential increase in the need for sound scientific information, as well as a massive increase in the number of conspiracy believers who publicly confess to conspiracy myths. But we have also seen – after initial (and in some cases still ongoing) resistance from some politicians and authorities – a massive increase in the influence of science on political decisions.

Credit:, unsplash

The writer almost wrote “the influence of science” on our everyday life, but it is omnipresent anyway. Without science and the thinking that underlies it, we would have no electricity, no Internet, no mobile phones, no GPS and almost everything else that makes our lives comfortable today.

Do masks help or not? And is Remdesivir a suitable corona drug or not? It goes from one word to another.

(At the time of this blog’s publication, the latest findings suggest that Remdesivir is suitable as a corona drug, but only if it is administered early enough. In the past, the time was not important, then it was said that it would not help at all …)

For people with a scientific education this is quite normal, but for all other people it is rather unsettling. Isn’t science about creating knowledge that is then unalterably valid? – Unfortunately, science does not work like that.

For knowledge develops from initial assumptions and indications via verifiable theses and experiments with concrete results to secure theories, which are then at some point called “knowledge”.

This was also the case with COVID-19, about which science knew nothing at the end of 2019 and still knows far too little today. But probably never before in the history of mankind have so many scientists turned to a topic as quickly as with COVID-19.

In mid-January, scientific papers began trickling out with the first details about the new coronavirus. By the end of the month, the journal Nature marveled that over 50 papers had been published. That number has swelled over the past few months at an exponential rate, fitting for a pandemic.

The National Library of Medicine’s database at the start of June contains over 17,000 published papers about the new coronavirus. A website called bioRxiv, which hosts studies that have yet to go through peer review, contains over 4,000 papers.

In earlier times, few people aside from scientists would have laid eyes on these papers. Months or years after they were written, they’d wind up in printed journals tucked away on a library shelf. But now the world can surf the rising tide of research on the new coronavirus. The vast majority of papers about it can be read for free online.

But just because scientific papers are easier to get hold of doesn’t mean that they are easy to make sense of. Reading them can be a challenge for the layperson, even one with some science education. It’s not just the jargon that scientists use to compress a lot of results into a small space. Just like sonnets, sagas and short stories, scientific papers are a genre with its own unwritten rules, rules that have developed over generations.

Scientific publications follow their own unwritten rules, which have developed over generations and which lead to considerable misunderstandings if they are not understood.

What does it mean, for example, that there is evidence that a certain drug works? – As a rule, this means nothing other than that there is either a plausible assumption or that you have seen something that could also be a coincidence. For example, if you give one medicine to 100 patients and 100 others do not, and then you see that more people in the first group are doing better than those in the second group, then that could also be a coincidence. You then have to clarify whether the people in both groups are similar enough to really compare the results, or whether, for example, there were more smokers in one group and if so, whether that is enough to explain the difference, etc. Such proof that something works can very quickly become very complicated.

This is why scientists only consider publications to be reliable when they have been critically examined according to the rules of science. It also depends on such tests where such scientific papers are published. A distinction is made between platforms for pre-publication (without review) and those that are only published after critical review. Only the latter have the reputation of disseminating sufficiently reliable knowledge.

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 a practice 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.

The peer review process can take a long time, as the paper is checked from start to finish for possible errors in experiments, the data obtained, conclusions and formulations.

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.

In doing so, they follow a certain jargon that you have to know. More about it in a following blog post.

It is interesting to note here that it is the scientists themselves who point out shortcomings in their own research and offer ideas for new studies. In doing so, they show that it is important to them to really find the truth and to change their opinions again when new findings are made.

This is the difference between science and faith. Or, to put it casually: science is when I suspect there’s a beer in the fridge, I look it up and form an opinion based on the result. Faith is when I suspect that there is a beer in the fridge and I don’t think it is necessary to look. Conspiracy belief is when I claim that Bill Gates put a beer in the fridge, my wife looks and reports that there is no beer at all and without looking I am convinced that Bill Gates has already implanted a chip in her to control her perception and thoughts.

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