Reading research articles

Reading research articles can be a daunting task for new students. Even after reading many articles over the last few years, I still take time to read, understand and critically evaluate research articles (Takes double the time for theoretical ones, since I’m from a technical background). I’m no expert on this topic (or any topic for that matter :p), but I thought this post could be useful for fellow students who toil with research papers just like me. The post is going to be a combination of few tips from my own experience plus a useful course I attended at UTS by Dr. Terry Royce (Reading & writing for your Literature Review: Getting started and what to look for).

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The first thing to keep in mind while reading articles is that it is a time consuming process. So do not get dejected if it takes longer than your allotted time. Not everyone reads in the same pace as you. Give yourself more time, especially if you’re reading a new topic. Your reading skills will definitely improve with experience.

Concentration is key, so take a break and refresh your mind if you’re stuck with an article for very long. How I wish it was as easy as reading a fiction novel for hours with absolute concentration… Sigh!!

Read articles in whichever form that is comfortable for you – either soft or hard copy is your choice. I recently moved from hard copy to soft copy format since it is more convenient to look up my notes anytime and easily portable. I still print important articles and make them ugly with highlights though 🙂 Managing and organising all articles you’ve read/ going to read is another arduous task, for which you probably have to plan early!

Now for the ‘real strategies’ for reading:

  • Read widely and extensively. When you get a fuzzy boundary sense after extensive reading (that the article doesn’t add anything new), that’s when you stop. PhD students might want to read over 300 articles before writing their thesis 😮
  • Learn ‘purposeful focused reading’ – you don’t necessarily have to read a whole book if you only need a chapter of it. Similarly, you can only read what you need in an article.
  • Employ these reading strategies:
    • Reviewing (looking at title, keywords and flipping through)
    • Skimming (for an overview)
    • Scanning (locating specific information or ideas)
    • Reading analytically (text structure, categories, hierarchies)
    • Close reading (observing details)
    • Reading critically (connecting what you read to what you know)
  • Identify the key features and the research arguments from the paper.
  • Look out for the important and relevant details from different entry points:
    • Abstract – What is the issue/project/question? What are the methods/argument/point of view? What are the results and implications?
    • Introduction – What is the topic area? What are the definitions, issue parameters and stages?
    • Conclusion – What are the general areas and specifics covered? Is the focus from the introduction reiterated? What are the implications?
    • Thesis – What is the claim made?
    • Evidence – Is the evidence presented, interpreted and connected to the claim?
    • Rhetorical Staging – How is the article rhetorically staged? (You should be able to draw a diagram to build and reinforce the points stated, if the article is well written)
    • Alternative views – Are there other points of view or counter arguments?
  • Think critically by learning to hear your own voice amidst the authors’ voices in the paper, and be sceptic (not cynic) – This critical thinking skill is another topic by itself!
  • Get started, summarise relevant points, assess the claims around your research and reflect to make critical judgements.

Happy Reading 😀

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