How to Read an Academic Article

Dense, jargon-filled paper about ants.

I recently stumbled across a pair of articles over at Science that resonated with me as a first year grad student taking a ‘Readings in Cellular and Molecular Biology’ class. The first article by Adam Ruben (a bit sarcastic) opens with “Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article”; I recall my social insect seminar, junior year of undergrad, where we read at least one primary research article a week and were asked to develop questions about it. My most frequent question, my persistent frustration, “what is this even about?” It amazed me that I could read a scientific paper (sometimes several times) without even coming close to understanding it.

Step ten of Ruben’s satirical ‘ten step process for reading a scientific paper is: “10. Genuine contemplation of a career in the humanities. Academic papers written on nonscientific subjects are easy to understand, right? Right?”. Interestingly, as an English major, I can tell you that they really aren’t; it’s just a different kind of incomprehensible thinking.

Academic articles, scientific or otherwise, are known to be dry, confusing, and wordy; this may be one reason why we have so much trouble getting a lay audience to read, believe, or report on the facts (but that’s a discussion for another time). While Ruben laments the nature of scientific articles, Elisabeth Pain takes on tips for reading them in her follow up article in Science where she compiles advice from other scientists. I’ve summed it up here, succinctly:

  • Read the abstract and conclusion, and study the most important figures first (this will tell you if it’s even a paper you’re interested in for your research). Then go back and try to understand the dense verbiage of the paper.
  • As you read, take notes of important sentences/ideas in whatever note-taking format works well for you. Then make comments on this document (or the paper itself) with your questions and other information that you think is relevant.
  • Take shortcuts – for example, skip the methods unless you feel there’s something vital in there for you. Skip the intro if you’re really familiar with the field already. Etc.
  • Pause immediately to look up words you don’t understand; write in the definition so you don’t forget if you need to come back to the paper…
  • OR only look up words if they’re critical to your understanding of the work; otherwise, don’t waste your time on all the jargon.
  • Go to a colleague for help if you’re overwhelmed and don’t be afraid to use lay-audience sources (Wikipedia, blog posts) to get a feel for your area of study.

I recommend, if you have time, reading through the advice in Pain’s article – there’s a lot more in there about identifying the scientific rigor of the paper which I chose not to deal with here.
Coming at this topic from a dual background, and particularly as a poet, I thought I’d share with you my method for reading scientific papers:

  • Making the paper a found poemfound poetry is poetry that was ‘discovered’ or ‘uncovered’ from another source. To familiarize myself with the language and very general ideas of the paper, the first time I read through, I pull out beautiful words and write them into a notebook for the potential to make a found poem later. This allows me to peruse the poem with no scientific understanding in mind, to get used to the writing style and to look up any words I don’t understand without being too frustrated to apply that definition.

    My word bank for the article ‘Mushroom Body Volumes and Visual Interneurons in Ants: Comparison between Sexes and Castes’
  • Highlight, make notes, find the stories – The next time I read, I take notes on the paper itself through highlighting and comments/definitions in the margins. I also use symbols to tie together a particular ‘story’ of the experiment – often, a study worked towards several different goals and the symbol notation lets me follow just one goal at a time.
    My notebook for found science poetry… every writer has to have their tools!

    So if the paper is answering three questions, I mark each paragraph with the relevant one to three symbols, allowing me to read just to understand one of those three questions. This also makes sure I understand what the questions actually are that the paper is addressing.

In the end, the real trick seems to be time – you must spend time with the paper in whatever way works for you, be it found poetry or note taking or reading it fifteen times until it makes sense.

Do you have to read academic work – scientific or otherwise? Do you have tips or tricks for getting through your reading with your sanity intact? Share them in the comments below!

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