Reading Academic Sources Effectively

We have all been there — the methods section of a research paper that seems to be talking in circles, when all you really need is a few facts about the statistical methods used. For many researchers, academic sources for their research articles can be overly complicated and too wordy to understand at times. No style of reading works for everyone, but there are general reading tips that are useful, whether used all together or mixed and matched. By using the tips below, you will be reading academic sources effectively without feeling overwhelmed.

  • Ask questions. This is another form of active reading that will keep you immersed in the text. By asking questions before, during, and after you read, you can selectively read the text, reread, make notes, and review the main points.
  • Isolate main ideas. Often the author(s) has already made this easy for you. Most academic sources are structured with an abstract, introduction, body, and discussion/conclusion. Reading the abstract of the source will tell you exactly what the source is about, the main research questions, and concluding thoughts. Within the introduction, body, and sometimes conclusion, smaller main ideas have been broken up into sections. Understanding what the paper is about on multiple levels (overall, sections, and paragraphs) will help you find the information you need.
  • Determine keywords. For most research papers, you can find these immediately after the abstract. Regardless, they will recur throughout your academic source. They will often be the main ideas of paragraphs or even sections. Alternatively, if you are reading your source on a computer, you can use control+F to search for keywords (or command+F if using a Mac).
  • Paraphrase and take notes. Close reading the source can easily be a waste of your time if there is only a few key phrases, references, or data you need from it. Chances are, the information you need from this source is very specific, and so very rarely will you need to read the entire article to understand what you are looking for. Paraphrasing the main ideas can help you to better process and understand information. Active reading will also keep you engaged in the article.
  • Assess the argument. Identify the main strengths and weaknesses about the claims the author has made, and, if applicable, the methods used in his or her research. By being aware of how the author structures their points, you can structure yours in a way that best suits the needs of your research project.
  • Skim the text. After you have found the section or paragraphs you need, you can skim them to look for the exact information you need. Skimming does not take as much time as close reading the text does, but by skimming you can determine if it is worth it to read the entire article.