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6 Tips for Reading and Actually Understanding Academic Papers



Raise your hand if you’ve read a paragraph over and over, but still had no clue what you just read. It’s not a bad sign because it means you’re trying to learn new things, but when you hit that wall and don’t know how to conquer it, having a plan can be a lifesaver.

This can be especially true in college where peer-reviewed journal articles and other academic papers are often assigned. They can be tough to get through, but they provide critical evidence for writing assignments and can help you understand some of the newest research in your field.

It doesn’t matter if your major is political science or biology, you will almost definitely be tasked with reading scholarly work during your time in college. Use these tips to better understand academic papers, and you will be reading them with confidence in no time!

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1.     Know the structure

Even though the content of academic articles can change, their structures are all generally the same. The five most important sections to consider when reading an academic paper are the abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Here is a quick breakdown:

  • Abstract: This section gives you a brief overview of what the paper seeks to accomplish.
  • Introduction: This section provides the context of the research and the question to be considered.
  • Methods: This section will tell you how the experimenters carried out their research.
  • Results: This section contains a summary of the data collected.
  • Discussion: This section analyzes the results and talks about their implications.

2.     Evaluate the author information

While you now know about the five main sections of a paper, the author information of a scholarly piece is also important to consider, and it can give you some helpful hints in your research. Look at the journal that published the piece, and think about how this impacts the credibility of your own writing. If you are not sure about the history or the importance of the journal, do a quick online search and see what you can find.

3.     Read selectively

While reading the article top to bottom might seem like a good idea at first, taking a different approach to academic papers will be much better for truly understanding them. Take a first pass at the paper, where you just read the abstract, introduction, and discussion sections. This will give you a good idea of what the paper is all about. Then, take a second pass and read the methods and results sections. Finally, on your third pass, read the whole thing over again. This will ensure a full understanding of the paper.

If you are just looking to find the main points of an article, stop at the first pass. You will have enough information to gather the objectives and outcomes of the paper. It is only if you need to know the research in and out that you would need to take all three passes at reading the paper.

4.     Take notes

While you’re going through your paper, it is useful to take notes. Either print out the paper or download the paper so that you can mark it up how you like. Highlight quotes you think are important, and summarize main points in the margins. This will help you understand the paper better while you read, and it will also save you time when you go back to look over your work later!

5.     Carefully consider each figure

Charts and tables are a major piece of academic papers. These figures can help you better understand the data that is being presented. After you have carefully read the paper through three passes, look at each figure and jot down a few words to describe what it is displaying. While some look complicated, don’t stress! The figures often have small descriptions underneath them, and you can use these to decode any confusing details.

6.     Try to summarize

Now that you have gotten a good feel for the paper, try to explain the premise of it to a friend, or just write down the key facts that you know about it on a piece of paper. If you cannot easily explain the basic argument of the article, chances are you might want to brush up on your notes to fill the gaps in your understanding.

At this point, your paper should be pretty marked up. Congrats! You have mastered an academic paper. Use these tips going forward to make your literature reviews and term papers more manageable. Maybe you’ll even write an academic paper that winds up in a journal yourself!

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