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Getting Better at Reading Academic Papers: a Brief Guide for Beginners (Part 2)

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«Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article» — writes the TV presenter and molecular biologist Adam Ruben. In a way, he's right — many of us get lost in the often confusing language of peer-reviewed papers. But the situation does not have to be hopeless. A bit of effort on the readers' part can go a long way. We looked at the techniques actual scientists use to navigate academic content. And compiled them into this two-part guide (Part 1: Getting Better at Understanding Academic Papers).

Фото Daoud Abismail / Unsplash.com

Now that we know what to look for and where to find it, let's move on to some of the more general advice. Jennifer Raff — the assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Kansas— shared a number of practical tips you can follow to ease the process of reading journal articles:

  1. Upon reading the introduction, identify the big question at its heart, and write it down in your own words.
  2. Summarise the background of the research in a few sentences before reading the rest of the paper.
  3. Identify specific questions that were asked before the beginning of the research.
  4. Get to know all the unfamiliar words in the article.
  5. Draw a diagram illustrating the researchers' methods.
  6. Interpret the data on your own, ignoring the discussion segment.

Simply put, do not trust researchers at their word. There's a lot of subjectivity at play here, and it's best to account for it. To help herself stay objective, Jennifer has a personal habit of only reading the abstract after she's done with the rest of the paper. This way, you get to judge the data on its own merits. However, this approach is not popular. A poll published by Science magazine shows that most scientists do not skip abstracts — particularly, when they aren't intimately familiar with the subject matter.

On the other hand, Jennifer's advice regarding unfamiliar words is heeded by many in academia. About half of the respondents to the aforementioned poll claim that you can't fully understand the paper, until you understand every single word in it. Here are some of the other tips from the same source:

  • Don't be afraid to ask questions, google unfamiliar terms, or consult «less, than scientific» sources like Wikipedia. At the end of the day, academic papers are not pulp fiction. They take real time and effort to understand. If push comes to shove, you can even email the researchers, asking for a clarification.
  • Do not read the paper in one sitting. Break it into several pieces and let yourself digest the information.
  • Print the paper and highlight the key passages. If there's ever a need to go back to this article further down the road, this will make it much easier to refresh your memory.
  • Try and be an 'active reader' — know what you want from the paper before even touching it. Once you found precisely what you came looking for, copy this information. Lina A. Colucci Ph.D., a graduate of the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, has a habit of maintaining a separate file with the information regarding the context of the papers she consults for her current research.

Фото Daoud Abismail / Unsplash.com


  1. Do not read something you don't need to. Define your goals, and pick a source you can actually use. Look for secondary sources when you want a general overview of the subject, and primary sources when you need to be very specific.
  2. Bad papers aren't worth reading. If the abstract and the conclusion are terrible and inconsistent, chances are, so is the rest of the paper. If they don't touch on the subject you're interested in, might be a good idea to look elsewhere.
  3. Pay a lot of attention to the paper's introduction. Write a summary of the academic context of the research in your own words. Look for unfamiliar words and acquaint yourself with their meaning. If you're having trouble comprehending this section, look for a secondary source to fill the gaps in your knowledge.
  4. Take breaks. Reading scientific papers is not easy. Complicated articles might take a few days to read from start to finish.
  5. Draw a diagram illustrating the researchers' methods. This will help you conceptualise this research, and compare the researchers' approach to that of their peers and contemporaries.
  6. Pay attention to the images found in the 'results' section. The graphs and the illustrations contain a lot of valuable data — perhaps, more, than the surrounding text.
  7. Read the 'Discussion' section multiple times. Did the conclusion match the questions outlined in the beginning of the article? Do you agree with the researchers' interpretation of the data?
  8. Look for reviews of the paper, and listen to your peers' opinions: what's the consensus of the scientific community?

Further reading:

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