How to Read and Understand Academic Research Papers

4 min read

While reading or watching the news can keep you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world, sometimes you might want to dig a little deeper and do some research. Maybe you want to learn more about some brand-new cancer treatments, or you’re curious about the migration patterns of zebra finches after watching an animal special. For whatever reason, you’ve decided to browse through some academic research.

Most people aren’t in the habit of reading articles in a scientific journal the same way they would read a story in Good Housekeeping. Even publications like National Geographic or Popular Science take academic research and distill it into something more easily accessible for the average reader. Academic articles are written for a scholarly audience, using specific vocabulary and dense syntax. As a result, they’re not exactly beach reading. However, the tips and tricks in this article can make understanding academic research much more manageable.

Finding Academic Research

Step one of reading academic research is finding academic research. A starting point like an article in a consumer magazine might give you the name of an academic journal. Then you can follow the trail to a complete research paper. For example, a Popular Science article about equatorial songbirds quotes the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Clicking on that link brings you to a summary of the research, but another link at the bottom of that page takes you to the complete academic article, “A colourful tropical world.” Here’s where an amateur researcher might get stuck — there’s a paywall. Professionals in the field will likely benefit from a subscription, but it can get pricey for someone interested in just one article.

There are options to access the research, however. Consider contacting the author of the paper. Their information will likely be on the website, and you can send them a note to express your interest, and ask if they can send you a copy. Many researchers would love to share their results.

You can also try your local library. Beyond providing access to physical books, most libraries provide online subscriptions to a wide range of reference and research publications. Go to your local library website and see if there’s a “research” tab or something similar — or just talk to a librarian. Their job is to help patrons find and access all sorts of information.

Finally, the internet is your friend. Many articles are published online in various places. Try Google Scholar and search for the specific journal, the article title, or just the general topic you’re interested in. When searching, however, pay attention to the source. An address ending in ".edu" is likely to be reliable, whereas a ".com" or ".org" might not be the place for academic research.

What Are Your Initial Questions?

Before you crack the binding on your new copy of The Lancet (one of the oldest and most respected peer-reviewed medical journals, founded in 1823 and named after a surgical instrument), ask yourself why you want to read this paper. Here are some questions that might help:

  • Do you want to know more about a specific topic, or are you trying to get a general sense of the field of research?
  • Do you want to find a solution to or the cause of a problem?
  • Do you want to apply this research in your life?
  • Do you have to read this paper because a professor assigned it to you?

Once you understand what you’re hoping to achieve by tackling academic research, you can determine a good game plan.

Article Structure

Tip: Do not sit down and read the whole paper. That might sound like strange advice, but unless you’re a professional in that field, you don’t necessarily need to read every page. Instead, there might be certain sections that will give you the information you need.

Academic research and the papers that provide the results generally follow the same format:

  • Abstract: A general overview of the paper’s content.
  • Introduction: Another short explanation of the purpose of the research.
  • Methodology: A section to guide readers through how the researchers designed the experiment.
  • Results: Documentation to share the unbiased data and outcome of the experiment, along with graphs, charts, and figures.
  • Conclusion/Discussion: A summary of the findings of the experiment. Here, the researcher(s) will interpret the data and present any new information.

In some cases, it’s helpful to read sections out of order. Don’t treat scholarly writing like your favorite TV show — you want to get the spoilers out of the way in the beginning.

Start by reading through the abstract and introduction, followed by the conclusion/discussion. These three sections will give you the best overall idea of the material in the paper. Then, if the article is relevant to your interests and answers a question you’re interested in, you can browse through some of the other sections.

The methodology section will generally be the most technical and complex, so you may want to save that for last. Other academics may be interested in comparing the methodology to what they are researching, but for  casual readers, the section might not be useful or even important to read.

While You’re Reading

Remember to stay focused on the question at hand while reading the paper. Don’t get bogged down in excess details if they’re not helping. Know that you can skim or scan sections as needed.

Are scholarly words and jargon confusing? Don’t be afraid to pause and look up terms and keywords that are unfamiliar. The methodology section might contain an explanation of certain terms or abbreviations, so it may be helpful to skim for that.

Though you’re trying to understand the researcher’s conclusions, don’t forget to question what you’re reading. Not every experiment is well conducted, and not every conclusion is correct. Think critically about what you’re reading. You can also check online to see if the paper you’re reading has been recalled or if its methodology or conclusions have been criticized or questioned within the wider scientific community. This is where the source of the paper or journal is important. Research sponsored by an academic institution and published in a peer-reviewed journal will always be more impartial and reliable than something from a lobbying group sent out via press release. The latter may be presented like academic research, but it’s not produced with the same standards.

Finally, reading academic research gets easier with practice. The more journals and papers you browse through, the better you’ll become at understanding the world of scholarly writing.

Featured image credit: thomas-bethge/ iStock

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