It sounds odd to say that you don’t know how to read academic papers. You start at the beginning, keep reading until the end—right? But the problem of being unable to cope with academic reading is probably the most common complaint amongst students at all levels.
The truth is that reading for academic purposes is just not the same as other kinds of reading. It’s a different process to, say, reading a novel. You don’t have to start at the beginning, read the whole thing, and then move on. You probably won’t get as much out of it that way, and it will probably take up a huge amount of your time. Instead, you have to read actively, selectively and purposefully.
It is very hard to read academic papers in their entirety and get anything out of them. The problem is that academic papers are often very dense. They contain huge amounts of material. They often contain a lot of facts and figures, a lot of references, a lot of arguments and a lot of technical terms. Reading a whole academic paper in a single effort is likely to leave your head buzzing with half-remembered facts and addled by half-understood concepts and terms.
It sounds trite, but in order to get something out of reading an academic paper, you have to know what you want to get out of it. You need to read with a purpose in mind.
The first thing I do when I read a new paper is to write down what I want to get out of it. A statement of purpose, if you like. I read with that statement of purpose beside me. Whenever I find something in the text that will help me achieve that aim, I stop. I make a note of what I’ve read. I think about it. Then—if the purposes haven’t yet been fully met—I go back and continue reading.
Most importantly, if I’m reading something and I realise that the paragraph, graph, figure, statistic, entire section or even occasionally the entire paper won’t help me achieve my purpose—I will move on. The information I skip might be interesting. It probably has plenty of academic relevance. But it’s not what I need right now. Right now, I have goals, and I’m going to meet them. Reading material which won’t help me do that will hinder me because it will distract my mind and might confuse my thinking.
But then you might ask—where does the statement of purpose come from? How can you know what you want to get from a text before you read it? This is the challenge of academic reading, and it’s a skill you’re going to have to develop.
Fortunately, there are loads of ways to come up with reading goals. The key is to find out what you’re expected to learn on your course. There are many different sources for this:
- The Lecture. If your course has a lecture, then most likely the lecturer will spend quite a bit of time laying out what they believe to be the key points in the topic for that week. Browse the slides. See if the lecturer has laid out any obvious goals for understanding. Make satisfying those goals your reading purposes. If the lecturer doesn’t make this explicit, then go over the slides in detail. Ask yourself which bits you understand, and which bits are challenging. Make your goals to get a better understanding of the bits you find difficult. If there are sections you understand, a good goal might be to find some more examples, cases or figures which you could use in explaining that point in a class discussion or essay.
- The Course Guide. These usually contain some learning objectives which may give you more information about what the lecturer thinks you need to know. If there are terms or concepts in there that you don’t understand, make one of your reading goals to get a better understanding of that concept.
- Past Exam Questions. Look to the library’s past examinations. Pull out the questions which relate to this week’s topic. What information would you need in order to be able to answer that question? Finding that information will be your reading goal. If you already understand the concepts, arguments and terms the question refers to, then finding the supplementary evidence to make your case (again, facts, figures, quotations, examples and case studies) is a good goal. When you look for that supplementary information, make sure you’re selective. You don’t need every single statistic that relates to your topic precisely because you wouldn’t write them all down in an exam or essay. You might make your goal to find three important pieces of evidence.
- Short Answer Questions or Class Handouts. If your course teacher circulates a class handout or your course has a list of short answer questions in advance of the class, then you can use answering those questions as your reading goal. Your teacher has done this to help you read purposefully and to guide you to the most important points.
Introductions and Literature Reviews
If you’re still stumped as to what you’re meant to get out of a reading, then you need a little more information about what the topic is. You might consider going to an office hour for your class teacher or lecturer. But a good first port of call is the first section of many papers. Often, an academic author will begin their paper by situating their work in the context of the relevant literature. This will require them to explain some key terms and concepts, to outline other authors’ views and arguments, and to describe the key questions they are interested in. By reading this section first, you can hopefully get an overview of the debates. While reading this section ask yourself: What terms or concepts don’t I fully understand here? What debates do I need to know more about? Which authors tend to come up a lot?
When I start reading in a new topic, the first thing I do is to open a bunch of the papers from the reading list and quickly scan to find the literature review in each—usually the first section. I quickly read through the literature reviews from several papers. Don’t worry if a few papers don’t have this—they don’t all have one, but usually enough papers do to give you what you need. I make a note of terms, concepts, authors and debates. I then use this to frame my reading goals.
You now have some idea of what you need to achieve when reading. Actually writing down the reading goals can be a really useful exercise. You can even make yourself a quick worksheet to fill in by setting them out as questions. The key thing to do when making reading goals is to make them fairly specific and achievable. You won’t be able to gain complete mastery of the whole debate. You won’t get as much out of a paper if you decide to list all the facts and figures contained within in, rather than to pull out the few which seem most important and illustrative.
Some examples of reading goals:
“Find three pieces of evidence for the claim that the balance of global power is shifting from the West to the East.”
“Define the concept of ‘liberal internationalism’.”
“Explain how the approach to foreign policy adopted by the Bush administration differed from previous American foreign policy.”
“State Plato’s argument in favour of rule by Philosopher Kings as a series of premises and a conclusion.”
Search for information to meet your goals
If what you’re reading isn’t helping you to meet your goals, you have my permission to skim over it.
Now suppose that one of your reading goals is to understand the term “liberal internationalism”. You need to select your reading in order to meet that goal. Your reading list for this week might have dozens of papers on it, only a few of which relate to liberal internationalism. So you have to pick the ones that do.
The best way to do this would be to find the papers with that term in the title. But not every author is so obliging. If you’re reading online, there are often a list of keywords at the start of an article that you might use to determine quickly whether the paper’s relevant. If not, reading the abstract or introduction should give you a better idea.
Suppose you find three papers which are about liberal internationalism. You start reading one of them. Very soon, you find that the author is bandying about the term liberal internationalism freely, and talking about some pretty complex stuff—but you still don’t feel like you know what the damn term means.
If you find yourself in this situation, stop reading. Pause. If you read any more of that paper right now, you’re going to get confused, bored or frustrated. You don’t know what the term means, so an in-depth discussion of its consequences or issues is not going to help you—yet. What you need is another source which can give you the background that you need to understand this paper.
Look to the other papers you’ve identified. Do any of those offer a more helpful outline of the key concepts you’re missing? If you’re reading online or a pdf, you can use your computer’s “find” function to locate the relevant section quickly. Once you’ve understood the concept and can write it down in answer to your reading goal, you can always go back to that more challenging paper and see if the information is now more readily comprehensible and helpful.
If nothing you have gives you a good enough grasp on the term or concept, then you might have to go looking outside the reading list. Googling the term may throw up some helpful introductory resources. Study guides and introductory textbooks might also have a better more user-friendly account of the concept than cutting-edge research papers. Your lecture slides might have it defined.
If you still find yourself unable to access a decent account of the concept, it may be that the concept is vague or not well-understood in the literature. You might need to access a few papers to find competing accounts. These are very difficult terms to deal with. Fortunately, your teachers are going to be aware of this challenge, and it is perfectly reasonable to say that the concept is vaguely defined and that there are competing accounts in your work. In order to move forward, you might want to sketch your own working definition on the basis of what you’ve found. If you really can’t find any information about a term anywhere, then it’s probably time to email your teacher or go to an office hour.
Is your reading list super long? If you have dozens of book chapters and articles on your reading list, then your teacher will not expect you to have read it all. They have given you this extensive reading list so that no matter which information you need, it’s hopefully there for you. Your job is not to read everything, but to find the information that you need.
How can you do this? There are a number of ways to select the readings you need. As mentioned above, scanning the titles, keywords and abstracts or introductions of the papers should get you most of the way to identifying the material that’s important for you. If your teachers have indicated particular texts in their handouts or lectures, then those might be a priority.
In addition, you can get a sense of how important each paper on the reading list has been to its field by reading through the literature reviews, as described above. Papers and authors who get mentioned a lot are probably more influential and their work may contain the key ideas you need to grasp.
However, you may prefer to read some secondary literature first. Remember that the papers which academics judge to be important are usually those which originally made a particular point or argument. They may not contain the clearest, best expressed or formulated version of that argument. Often, an author writing about that paper at a later date might do a better job of explaining the position or argument. They may pick out the core points which have made that original paper famous. That secondary source could save you a major headache trying to work out what bit of a lengthy famous paper made its name. Once you have an idea from another source what the key points of a paper are, you can go back and read selectively to get it from the horse’s mouth.
Another advantage of secondary literature is that it can often offer you a guide to the ways this position or argument was subsequently criticised, and identify who the important critics are, and which papers you can find this critique in. Don’t forget to use the list of references or bibliography of the papers you read to find the ones that seem important.
Remember: reading academic papers is not about quantity. You do not get any points for reading everything. You don’t need to read every word in a paper to get the information you need. You should read the specific sections which contain that information. Reading is about quality. Being selective is vital to find the high quality literature you need.
Structure Your Reading
You can’t read everything at once. You must put your reading into an order. A sensible reader will read introductory materials first. Some papers may be on your reading list to give you the background you need. Start there.
Your course’s reading list might not be ordered in the way that would work best for you. Most teachers put thought into arranging their materials, but they may often order papers by their (perceived) importance, from most to least important. But the most important papers aren’t always the easiest to read and understand, particularly if you’re coming to a topic cold. As before, you may need to build up to these crucial papers by starting with introductory material and secondary sources, until the key papers start to make sense.
When you’re reading more advanced papers, stop whenever you need more background. Don’t try to read the whole thing before you’ve got the basics right. If the difficulty level of a paper suddenly jumps up, it may be time to set it aside and read some other material, so that you can come back to it with a greater understanding. There is no point in slaving away reading something you don’t really understand.
You can have several papers on the go at once, reading the sections in an order that allows you to build up your understanding from the basics towards the more complex material.
Don’t try to read everything in one sitting. You need time to process information.
Come back to key passages later and re-read them. You will be amazed how much clearer things are the second time around, after your brain has had some time to assimilate the new info.
Make an Overview of a Paper
If you know a paper is particularly important (for instance, it is the key required reading for this week, or you’ve seen exam questions specifically about this author’s approach), then it’s worth making an overview. This is a set of notes which describe what the paper achieves, and how it does it.
First, work out what question the author is trying to answer, what thesis the author defends. What is the intention of the paper? What type of paper is it? Is it an overview of the relevant literature, a report of a study, an analysis of a concept, etc. You can often find this out by looking first to the introduction and/or conclusion of the paper. What approach is the author taking?
What sections are there to the paper? Often authors kindly divide their paper into subsections for your convenience. If they don’t, you may have to identify the different parts of the paper yourself. A good trick is to read the first sentence of each paragraph to see if you can glean the topic of that paragraph. Which sections are important to your understanding? Which are more superfluous? Make a note of what each part of the paper achieves. Then, try to draw these together so that you can see how each section helps the author in supporting their thesis.
Summarise how each part of the paper supported the central argument.
After Each Reading
After reading, you need to evaluate your reading. Did you meet each of your goals? If not, what other resources will you need to explore?
Are there any new reading goals which you now need to achieve? Did the reading throw in any new concepts or terms that you need to understand? Did it suggest any arguments you might want to explore? Were there any claims in the paper that did not have adequate evidence to support them? Could you find that evidence elsewhere?
What are your reflections on the text? Were you convinced by the argument? Did you have any criticisms? Make sure to jot all of this down. It will be very useful when you come to write in response to the text.
Make a record of the reading. Note down at least:
- What the author’s key point(s) were.
- What your response to the reading was.
- How this relates to the topic.
Make sure that you’ll be able to understand your record in several months time when it comes to the exam. Don’t make yourself do the work all over again!
Share the Burden
One of the best ways to lighten your reading load, but also deepen your understanding is to share the task with a friend or fellow student. Try to form a reading group if you can. If you can team up with others on your course, you can divide up the reading and report back to one another.
Even better—try to explain what you’ve read to a friend or fellow student. Explaining what a paper said might help them out, but it’ll also reinforce your understanding, and allow you to identify the bits you didn’t fully understand and might need to re-read.
Latest edit: 21/01/2020 by CJ Blunt