How to Read an Academic Paper Effectively and Efficiently
Written by Zoe Jensen
In these 4-week blocks we have a lot of work in a short amount of time, but really no matter the class it helps to know how to get the most when reading an academic paper– not just to make your studying more efficient but also so you really engage with the literature and actually learn the information.
It’s easy to push off your readings and speed read the morning of class, and while you may get enough information to push through your seminar you probably won’t know anything about the paper by the time the exam rolls around. Many students don’t read because they feel they don’t have the time to (especially if you tend to need multiple read-throughs to grasp the main ideas) or because they are discouraged because they struggle to understand a paper. This blog hopes to give you some tools to tackle your readings from new perspectives to make readings less daunting and more enjoyable!
Here are some tips and tricks for the best way to read all those research papers you encounter during your studies so that studying is a more rewarding experience!
1. Get engaged!
It’s obvious, I know– but it’s good to start with a reminder. Firstly, find the medium that works best for you. Yes, PDFs are cheap and convenient but with all the time you spend staring at your screen during a day between homework, social media, etc. your brain may shut down a bit when looking at yet another screen for a long period of time. If you find yourself zoning out while reading on a screen, consider printing out your articles and buying your textbooks. If you prefer to read online, try minimizing the distractions on your screen, such as extra tabs.
2. Set aside an appropriate amount of time to read
This will make or break your studies. Even with these tips, reading a paper is not a quick task! In order to get the most out of a paper you shouldn’t rush the process. It is typically recommended you read a paper 2-3 times (once as a clean read, the next to annotate, and the third to solidify your thoughts and make new notes/connections after having annotated it).
Make sure you give yourself several hours to go over a paper and interact with it (though time varies per person of course). It is important to note that this doesn’t have to be in one sitting. Feel free to set aside smaller chunks of time over the course of a week so you do not begin to lose focus. If you are someone who finds studying in long stretches difficult, look at different study techniques, for example, the Pomodoro method in which you study in chunks of 25 minutes, with 5-minute breaks in between. Other methods may work better for you so do look around!
3. Annotate your readings
Regardless of whether you are on a laptop, or iPad, or have a printed copy, MARK UP YOUR ARTICLES/BOOKS. Does it take a bit of extra time to stop and write notes? Yes. but in the end, the extra engagement, in the beginning, will save you down the line when you don’t need to read the entire article for the 10th time and can refer to your notes. If you’re a book lover like me and the thought of writing in a book, textbook, or otherwise, hurts your soul, then try sticky notes. It can be a bit harder to annotate in detail since you can’t highlight/circle etc as easily but for summaries, notes, and questions it's a nice middle ground. You can also find lots of transparent sticky notes out there that make it easier to mark up a text without writing in the book itself. For PDFs use the drawing, highlight, and textbox tools to annotate just as would on paper. For those with a tablet who can draw directly on a PDF, you have the best of both worlds!
It’s important that your notes are not just summaries. Summaries are helpful and sometimes needed to get through all the scientific jargon and in fact, learning to summarize well is a skill in itself– but also go in-depth and get critical with the text. Do you agree with the method of the study? Do you think you would come to the same conclusions the author did? What flaws are there and what did the researchers do well? Don't be afraid to challenge what was done, make connections between readings/ideas, and ask questions!
Don’t like annotating? There are tons of different note-taking methods out there so look around and if any help you organize your thoughts in a better manner. Check out a few here: https://www.utc.edu/enrollment-management-and-student-affairs/center-for-academic-support-and-advisement/tips-for-academic-success/note-taking
3. Learn the Sections
When first looking over a paper it’s important to look at the sections it is made up of and know what information is contained in each. Depending on what you’re looking for specifically in a paper you may want to spend more time on some sections than others. Here are the main sections you’ll encounter:
Abstract: Overview of the study as a whole
Introduction: Scientific & social relevance, broader background to the study
Literature Review/ Background (sometimes combined with the Introduction): Discussed previous research relevant to the study. Often expresses the gap in the current research or points out problem areas the current paper aims to address.
Methodology: How the research was conducted, including participants, equipment, techniques, data collection process, etc.
Results: The data yielded by the methods and stats (if quantitative data). Sometimes this is more straightforward, other times there is more analysis and such added here (though analysis may be saved for the discussion)
Discussion: Discussion and interpretation of results, often placed within the context of previous research. What do the results mean for the research question and hypotheses? Shortcomings of the research or things that maybe didn’t go as planned. Ideas for expansion of the study/future research
Conclusion: Recap of the study, and the importance of the research.
4. Different methods of readings for different purposes
Reading a paper because it is assigned for a class is different from finding sources for a research paper, as a result reading a paper efficiently means different things depending on your situation.
What sections you place particular importance on will depend on the reason you are reading the paper (i.e. as an assignment, for a project, to compare methods, etc.). A good idea for most situations, however, is to understand the importance of the paper– whether how it relates to your research question or why it was assigned for a class in the first place. Start with the abstract to get an overview of the study as a whole, then jump to the end! The discussion and conclusion will similarly sum up the study and discuss its importance. Now as you read through the paper you know what the main focus is and what to pay more attention to as you examine the literature review, methods, etc. After those three sections, you should also be able to see if the paper is suitable for a research project, if yes read it in detail, if not then you didn’t waste your time by reading the whole paper. Of course, use your own discretion as it’s not a one size fits all thing!
5. Ensure you understand the main points
Not all papers are as clear and well organized as others. Don’t assume the research question will be easy to find or read. When reading, make sure you explicitly understand the main points. It’s usually a good idea to make these stand out in your annotations. For example:
The research question
Hypotheses and predictions
What is the experimental design: was a specific test used? Who are the participants? What are the independent and dependent variables?
Type of results: quantitative/qualitative? how were they analyzed? Statistically significant?
Conclusions: were the hypotheses supported? What does this imply?
If you miss any of these there’s a good chance that you may find the paper more difficult to understand.
6. Don’t expect perfection
There will be articles that no matter how many times you read and no matter how many notes you take they will still be hard to understand. Don’t let it discourage you! In cases like this annotations and summaries are still helpful so you can point out specific areas of confusion which will help you and your teachers push you in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your teachers or your peers– if you are struggling with something you likely aren’t the only one.
I hope this helps! As with many study resources, this is just a guide to help you find what works best for you, so feel free to try different things!
Here is another in-depth article with suggestions on how to read a research paper.
How to Read a Scientific Paper, By Ellen Moran, BiteSizeBio: https://bitesizebio.com/11060/how-to-read-a-scientific-paper/
More study techniques can be found here:
Different Techniques of Studying, By Tracy, Study Smarter: https://www.studysmarter.co.uk/magazine/study-techniques/
How to read research papers quickly and efficiently, By Denise Mager, Researcher.life: https://researcher.life/blog/article/read-research-papers-quickly/
#GradHacks: A guide to reading research papers, Scientifica: https://www.scientifica.uk.com/neurowire/gradhacks-a-guide-to-reading-research-papers
How to read a research paper, Harvard: https://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~michaelm/postscripts/ReadPaper.pdf