How to Read Academic Articles

My students in Introduction to International Relations at the University of Rochester are now preparing for their finals. As always, most–if not all–of them are behind in their readings. I think a major reason students fall behind here is because they do not know how to read academic articles properly. Then again, it’s not their fault. For some reason, no one ever directly teaches this vital skill to undergrads. Hell, I don’t believe I knew what I was doing until after I graduated. Oops.

Anyway, here is your triage for finals week:

  1. Read the title. (Seriously.)
  2. Read the abstract.
  3. Read the introduction.
  4. Read the conclusion.
  5. Skim the rest. (If you have time or really want to learn the topic, read the rest.)

Let’s go through the rationale of each step of the process. I’ll be referring to my paper on optimal pitching strategies to make the point clearer. Also, it’s scientific fact that baseball makes everything better.

Step 1: Read the Title
This sounds silly, but it really works. Many tests ask students to identify the author of particular quotes from assigned readings. If you just read the title to all of the assigned readings, you can at least connect buzzwords from the quotes to the titles.

For example, the title of the linked article is Breaking Balls with a Runner on Third: A Game Theoretical Analysis of Optimal Behavior. At this point, we have not read the paper at all. But we still know a lot about what is going on. The subject is breaking balls (curveballs or sliders) with a runner on third base. The author (me) will use game theory to tell the reader something. Thus, if the quote on the test says anything about breaking balls or game theory jargon, we will know who the author of the quote is despite having done no real work.

Step 2: Read the Abstract
I didn’t know what an abstract was until senior year. This is not a good thing. If you are actually going to read an article, the abstract is the single most important paragraph. Read it.

I think the temptation to skip the abstract stems from its location in articles. They appear at the top of the first page or on the title page all by themselves. They are very skipable. But it’s fundamentally stupid to overlook them. Let’s read mine:

Whenever a pitcher throws a breaking ball with a runner on third base, he risks allowing the ball go past the catcher and allowing the runner to score. In this article, I analyze the optimal behavior of the players in such a scenario. With decent control and competent catchers, the pitcher throws breaking balls at the same rate he would if the bases were empty. Knowing that a wild breaking ball will occasionally score from third without a swing, the batter anticipates more fastballs. Yet, because the batter throws pitches at the same rate, the batter’s ability to guess the correct pitch is the same in both instances.

You wanted a summary of the article? Behold, I just gave it to you! Moreover, I did it in ten lines. At this point, you know exactly what I am discussing and what I will prove in the article. If you memorize this information, you can provide relevant discussion of the reading. Usually, undergrads do not need to do anymore. You also cannot see whether my argument holds any water, but that does not become important until you are a graduate student. (In case there was any doubt, my argument is rock solid thankyouverymuch.)

Step 3: Read the Introduction
The introduction is usually the abstract but with a little more information. Sometimes you find motivating examples (not the case in the linked article) and other times you will see a summary of the organization of the article, which gives you a better idea of how the author progresses with his argument (also not the case here). Regardless, the information-to-words ratio is still very high, so you cannot skip the introduction.

Step 4: Read the Conclusion
Children learn to read through works of fiction. Fiction requires the reader to go page-by-page through the novel. This is not the case with non-fiction. Yet most people will plow through an academic article just as they would The Hunger Games. That’s a mistake.

Like the introduction, the conclusion maintains a high information-to-words ratio. Conclusions usually summarize the contents of the article in a couple of paragraphs before providing ideas on how to expand on the research. Normally, “ideas on how to expand on the research” takes the form of admitting to weaknesses in the argument and guesses on how to shore up those problems. For example, I admit that my analysis is pure theory and there is no data to demonstrate that people actually behave in the way I expect them to. So if you are looking for ways to criticize the work, the author basically hands you ammunition on a silver platter.

Of course, if you read the article page-by-page, you probably got bored well before you reached the conclusion and thus never read it. Skipping from the introduction directly to the conclusion avoids this issue.

Step 5: Skim the Rest
Seriously, you aren’t going to get much out of everything in between the introduction and conclusion that you would not have gotten out of what you have already read. Skim everything else, only stopping if you find something interesting. (Some examples/case studies and graphs/charts are good reasons to pause.) Unless you find the research fundamentally interesting or you need to write a thesis on the subject, the nitty-gritty just is not worth your while.

The brilliance of this method is that it you know exactly what you should do given the amount of time you have to study. Waited until the last half hour to start studying? Bust out the syllabus and read over the article titles. Have a couple hours? Go through the abstracts. Half a day? Now you can get the introductions in. A full day? Do the conclusions as well. One week? Now you can fit in everything. (Or just read the intros and conclusions. Inevitably, this turns into six days of Call of Duty and one day of studying, but whatever.)

7 responses to “How to Read Academic Articles

  1. Pingback: How to Read Academic Articles | William Spaniel

  2. hilarious, i think u r a genius. I’m really slow on Game theory, and ur videos on youtube just did better than all of my teachers. The only problem is that i dont own a kindle…

  3. Pingback: Midterm Review for Civil War and the International System | William Spaniel

  4. Excellent. I’m recommending this article to students in my writing classes.

  5. I just want to let you know that as a person that hates articles and had to read many of them in Anthropology and Education (where most of the info in between introductions and conclusions was just a desert of writing and peer bashing) I love you and you are my hero.

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