February 15, 2012
Advice on Reading Academic Papers
Graduate students must learn to read academic papers, but in virtually all cases, these same students are not formally taught how to best read academic papers. It is not the same process used to read a newspaper, magazine, or novel. The process of learning how to read academic papers properly can not only be painful, but also waste quite a bit of time. Here are my quick tips on reading papers of all stripes:
- Start with the Introduction and Conclusion: This is the fastest way to determine the problem statement and the approach taken to the problem by the authors.
- Scan the paper and determine the Purpose, Structure, and Direction before reading for a detailed understanding. Once you know the general point (purpose), the outline (structure), and the author's slant on a topic (direction) then all the details are much easier to place in the correct context. Thus, if you find an idea confusing on your first pass reading through a paper, you may know not to worry about it because it is described in detail in a future section.
- Do not read every single word! There are bound to be words or phrases that trip you up as you read. If you take the time to continually re-read a word, phrase, or paragraph until you completely understand it, then you will end up wasting quite a bit of time. Often, if you simply plow past the part you don't understand, the meaning will be become clear in the next paragraph or section. Note the part that you found confusing and return to it later to see if the rest of the paper made it clear.
- After you have read the paper, immediately attempt to identify the main point, the strengths, and the weaknesses. As academics, we are all curious. If you start pondering the implications of the paper before you have clearly identified the main point, strengths, and weaknesses as the author presented them, then you will likely have trouble separating your deeper opinions on the paper from the basic elements of the paper.
In addition to these tips, please consider consulting with the following resources:
- Some Tips on Reading Research Papers
- A Guide to Reading and Analysing Academic Articles
- How to Read a Scientific Paper
- Quick Tutorial on Reading Scientific Papers
Although these resources focus on scientific papers, I have found many of the same techniques to be useful when reading law review articles and policy statements, which are also highly structured. Each of these resources provides a list of additional resources and can serve as a great place to get started. In addition, Google can provide even more.