How to Read an Academic Paper

If you are brand-new to research, you will soon discover that academic papers should come with an instruction manual to understand.

The first time I read an article, I felt like I was going to cry! I could only understand one out of ten words. At some point, I decided to blame my dyslexia and English as a second language (because the alternative would have been me being too dumb to read). I thought that I had made a terrible mistake by deciding to do research. And was experiencing the terrifying Impostor Syndrome.

Thankfully, I was wrong! It just takes time and a bit of know-how to get used to the esoteric world of academic papers.

I will now discuss a not-at-all-scientific or responsible way to read an academic paper in three easy steps!

Step One: DON’T PANIC

Don't Panic

Much like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, academic papers should come with this friendly reminder. Alas, they do not. So I will do it for you: DON’T PANIC.

Also remember, reading these papers takes practice. A. LOT. OF. PRACTICE.

Step Two: Understand the Structure of Academic Papers

Most empirical papers you will read follow this general structure:

  • Title Page
    • Title: some authors try to be cheeky or punny. Still, the title can tell you the general gist of the paper.
    • Authors: The people who put this article together. Most of the time, they are in order of importance. With the first author being the one driving the process. Other times, it is alphabetical (but this is rare in this field).
    • Key Words: These are concepts, theories, or constructs that the authors or publishers have established to be the key elements of the paper.
  • An Abstract
    • This is usually a paragraph detailing, briefly, the entire paper. From the theoretical lens, to the research question, and the findings.
  • Introduction
    • This section motivates the research question. The authors focus on answering the following questions about their paper:
      • Who cares?
      • What do we know?
      • What don’t we know?
      • What is the point?
    • This section also tells the reader the particular academic conversation this paper is joining.
  • Theoretical & Hypothesis Development
    • This goes into detail as to what we do (and don’t) know. The authors should clarify the “gap” between what we do know and what we do not. Most importantly, they need to make sure that what we do not know matters and should be known. Often, scholars call this the “so what?”
    • After they discuss why it is important to perform the study, the authors exactly what they are studying – these are the hypotheses.
    • Every aspect of the paper should flow logically from one step to the next. So when you read the hypotheses, you should not feel surprised by their statements.
  • Methods Section
    • Here the authors detail how they went about testing the hypothesis. Again, this should make sense.
    • This section usually discusses:
      • Why a certain context was chosen.
      • The kinds of data available and collected.
      • The procedures used to ensure the most appropriate data was collected.
  • Results
    • This section tells you what the authors found out. Most write very clearly and say things like “Hypothesis one had limited support” or “There is no support for Hypothesis 2b.”
  • Discussion
    • Here, the authors tell you what their findings mean. They usually relate their findings to contributions to theory, practice, or methods.
    • They should also address any potential issues with their analysis or approach. Were there issues with their data? Is what they found explained by something else?
  • Conclusions
    • This is a recap of the paper.
  • References
    • Papers that authors used to build their arguments.

Step Three: Understand WHY You are Reading this Paper

Knowing exactly why you are reading a paper can help you determine how much attention you should pay to the various parts of the paper.

It is true that in an ideal world you would read ALL THE THINGS paying ALL OF THE ATTENTION, this is simply impossible. There are not enough hours in the day or days in the year to accomplish this.

So – why are you reading this paper?

A. For a Seminar – and not even interested in the subject.
B. For a Seminar – slightly interested in the subject.
C. For a Seminar – this is exactly my subject or you will be the class leader.
D. For your dissertation.
E. For the lulz.

Based on your answer above, follow the instructions below!

A     B     C     D     E

For Answer A. 

Look, I know of you have NO INTEREST in this topic. I get it.  But you still have to read it.  Your professor chose that paper to discuss a particular topic. And in all likelihood this paper and topic will be a part of your comps.

Also, as I discussed in what to expect in a doctoral seminar, you will have to discuss it with your peers. Therefore, you should be able to answer the following questions about the article:

  1. What is the research question or central issue the author is investigating?
  2. What theory or framework is presented?
  3. What are the interesting ideas in the paper?
  4. What are the key concepts in the paper?
  5. What are some ways it could have been strengthened?

So here is how to get the most out of reading a paper you are not interested in.

  • Read the title, abstract, and keywords.
    • Goal: Figure out the research question.
    • Goal: Learn what theories they are using.
      • Hint: the keywords usually have the theory in there.
  • Read the hypotheses.
    • Goal: Figure out the key concepts of the paper.
  • Read the introduction.
    • Goal: Understand the frameworks they are using.
    • Since you already read the hypotheses, does the framework fit? could their argument be strengthened?
  • Read the methods.
    • Goal: Lean how they operationalized the concepts in the hypotheses.
    • Did they actually measure what they hypothesized? If not, read the discussion.
  • Skim the results.
    • Goal: Lear in hypotheses were supported.
  • Read the discussion.
    • Goal: Find if the authors addressed weaknesses and future directions.

Write out all your notes on your master spreadsheet.

For Answer B. 

Hey, lucky student! I think it is awesome when an assignment has the promise of opening up new topics.

If you are short on time, use Answer A to guide you in how to do a quick and dirty read of an academic paper.

If you are not in a rush, read on!

You should be able to answer the following questions about the article for class discussion.

  1. What is the research question or central issue the author is investigating?
  2. What theory or framework is presented?
  3. What are the interesting ideas in the paper?
  4. What are the key concepts in the paper?
  5. What are some ways it could have been strengthened?

In addition, you need to pay attention to the theory as you might be interested in this topic.

So here is how to get the most out of reading a paper you are not interested in.

  • Read the title, abstract, and keywords.
    • Goal: Figure out the research question.
    • Goal: Learn what theories they are using.
      • Hint: the keywords usually have the theory in there.
  • Read the hypotheses.
    • Goal: Figure out the key concepts of the paper.
  • Read the introduction.
    • Goal: Understand the frameworks they are using.
    • Since you already read the hypotheses, does the framework fit? could their argument be strengthened?
  • Skim the theory development
    • Goal: Figure out if you are interested in this theoretical framework.
  • Read the methods.
    • Goal: Learn how they operationalized the concepts in the hypotheses.
    • Did they actually measure what they hypothesized? If not, read the discussion.
  • Skim the results.
    • Goal: Lear in hypotheses were supported.
  • Read the discussion.
    • Goal: Find if the authors addressed weaknesses and future directions.

Write out all your notes on your master spreadsheet.

For Answer C. 

So, you are the class leader. Or you absolutely LOVE this topic. AWESOME.

As with the previous steps, you need to be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the research question or central issue the author is investigating?
  2. What theory or framework is presented?
  3. What are the interesting ideas in the paper?
  4. What are the key concepts in the paper?
  5. What are some ways it could have been strengthened?
  6. What are the key papers this paper builds on?
  7. What are some ways you could build on this paper?

In addition, you need to really understand the theoretical development. And last, you need to be able to integrate this particular paper with what you have learned before.

So here is how to get the most out of reading a paper for class presentation or because love.

  • Read the title, abstract, and keywords.
    • Goal: Figure out the research question.
    • Goal: Learn what theories they are using.
      • Hint: the keywords usually have the theory in there.
  • Read the hypotheses.
    • Goal: Figure out the key concepts of the paper.
  • Read the introduction.
    • Goal: Understand the frameworks they are using.
    • Since you already read the hypotheses, does the framework fit? could their argument be strengthened?
  • Read the theory development
    • Goal: Figure out what are the foundational papers this paper builds on.
  • Read the methods.
    • Goal: Learn how they operationalized the concepts in the hypotheses.
    • Did they actually measure what they hypothesized? If not, read the discussion.
  • Read the results.
    • Goal: Understand why hypotheses were supported (or not).
  • Read the discussion.
    • Goal: Find if the authors addressed weaknesses and future directions.

Write out all your notes on your master spreadsheet.

For Answer D. 

Since you are reading this for your dissertation, you probably have a VERY SPECIFIC goal in mind.

For instance, are you trying to learn about the theory development? Are you reading to see how they constructed their argument?

If you are at this stage, you don’t need a guide. You just need to read the paper to find what you are looking for.

No matter what, though, you should always write out all your notes on your master spreadsheet.

Good Luck!! You can do it!!

For Answer E. 

Have fun! Since you are reading this paper for funsies, read it however you feel like. Read it upside down for all I care.

However, if at all possible, write it down on your master spreadsheet. You never know if you will need it!

May the Force Be With you as you read all the papers! With enough practice, you could become a Jedi!

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3 comments

  1. Whoa! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a totally
    different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design.
    Excellent choice of colors!

    Like

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