HOW TO READ A RESEARCH PAPER

Spencer Rugaber
August 30, 2006
Georgia Institute of Technology

At a university, you are often asked to read an academic paper or article. Here are some guidelines and questions you might ask yourself while doing so.

  1. Have a look at the book, How to Read a Book (Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, Simon and Schuster, 1940). It offers lots of useful advice to improve your reading skills.
  2. You may not be able to understand the whole paper in just one reading. On the first pass, get the general idea, look up any vocabulary words you don't understand, and write down your outstanding questions. Then make another pass in which you fit the puzzle pieces together.
  3. Identify the paper's thesis and state it as a simple sentence. The thesis is the main idea that the author is trying to convince you of. It is sometime surprisingly hard to determine this.
  4. After reading the paper, ask yourself whether or not the author has convinced you of the thesis. If not, why not? Was the logic flawed? Was there not enough evidence provided?
  5. Explicitly summarize the author's argument. That is, write down the points in the author's argument, and the reasons given for each point.
  6. What is the other side of the issue? Often authors will state this explicitly, with greater or lesser degrees of bias. Even is the author doesn't mention the other side at all, you should attempt to summarize the other side of the argument. After all, if there isn't another side, then why was the paper written in the first place?
  7. Are there questions that you are left wondering about? Often an author will explicitly raise "Future Work" that can be performed to follow up on the work presented. Conversely, the author may have overlooked some obvious questions left unanswered by the paper.
  8. More generally, try to characterize the field in which the author is working. Many times the author will do this explicitly by talking about "Related Work". And a thorough author will discuss how his/her work differs from each of the author's competitors.
  9. How does the author validate his work? That is, in making a case, an author should provide evidence that backs it up. Different fields use different kinds of evidence. For example, mathematicians provide proofs; psychologists do experiments; and engineers often build prototypes. Beware of papers that offer opinions but don't give you the evidence to support them.
  10. What was the author's style? Many academic papers are fairly (overly) dry, stating just the facts with little embellishment. Others are more tutorial in nature, using the second person pronoun ("you") instead of the impersonal third person ("he"/"she"/"it"). Some use the active voice, some the passive. Some even use an occasional figure of speech to liven things up.
  11. Here is one other book you might look at (Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings, John D. Ramage, John C. Bean, and June Johnson, Longman Publishers, 2004). It describes the techniques authors use (or misuse) in stating their positions. Understanding the techniques authors use in their writing can improve how well you read.

Estonian translation . Thanks to Weronika Pawlak.

Georgian translation . Thanks to Ana Mirilashvili.