How to read academic articles…

Pile of books

My reading pile

…and stay sane

One of my colleagues recently asked me how I manage to do all the reading necessary to write this blog. The sad part of the answer is that I’m such a geek that I do read stuff in my spare time. However, that’s not the whole story. I have had to learn two things:

  1. how to extract useful titbits from pieces of writing which seem to have been designed with the sole purpose of obscuring the meaning from any normal human being
  2. how to do this without wasting too much time and energy, and without wearing away the remaining fragile shreds of my sanity

‘How nice for you,’ you might say, ‘but what’s it got to do with us?’

Well, Section 8 of the QAA’s Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, which deals with career education, information, advice and guidance, has been recently revised. Under principle 8 of this section is the following statement:

Institutional guidance workers will keep up to date with the findings of relevant research organisations, including the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling (NICEC) and the International Centre for Guidance Studies (ICeGS), and will seek to disseminate key findings and developments to other staff involved in providing CEIAG.

So, to help our institution to pass its audits and reviews with flying colours, we should be engaging with stuff that careers and employability researchers are producing, and we should be able to explain what we learn to anyone else working on employability with students.

Part of the job of this blog is to help you with that, but there’s nothing like a bit of DIY.Here are a few tips to help you with your own reading.


Some helpful bloggers do all the hard work of reading things and producing nice, neat summaries. Check out my Blogroll on the right. Also have a look at the Research Blogging website and try Google Blog Search. Obviously, don’t believe everything you read; blogs are not peer-reviewed. (But maybe that’s not such a disadvantage after all.)

Know the different type of journal articles

There are a number of different types of articles that appear in journals, here’s my slightly irreverent guide to them.

  1. I want to summarise what everyone has been saying about this.‘ — These are called review articles and they often appear in special issues on a particular subject. The cynic in me thinks that they are written to keep the author’s publication record high when they don’t have anything to publish in category 2 or 3. However, these can often be the most useful type of articles for people who are short of time like us. They often give a well-structured overview of the various contributions to a particular area of research.
    Many category 2 and 3 articles have brief review sections in their introductions to show that the authors have checked out what other people have said before they throw in their contributions.
  2. Hey guys, I’ve thought of something no-one else has thought of!’ — These articles introduce new theoretical concepts and models that haven’t been tested out yet. These can be very interesting, but there’s a danger that they contain flaky, half-formed ideas that will never surface again or will be pooh-poohed by someone else who knows better. However, they are great for quoting to show that you are ‘up-to-date with cutting edge thinking’.
  3. We’ve tested something, and here’s what we found.’ — These articles are based on some piece of research the authors have conducted. There are a number of variants: ‘Nobody has tested this before,‘ ‘Somebody has tested this before but we don’t trust them and we’ve done it better,‘ ‘We’ve put together some bizarre combination of tests no-one has bothered to do before,‘ ‘We’ve found a group of people who haven’t had this test inflicted on them and guess what we did.
    These are frequently a waste of time. A lot of them are so specific or so obscure as to be of no general use. Some of them ‘prove’ something that everyone knew was true anyway. Others ‘prove’ things that will be disproved by someone else quite soon. Very occasionally you will come across something interesting and useful in this type of paper, but it’s not worth spending too much time on them unless you are a saddo like me.

Don’t think that you have to read the whole thing from start to finish

For some articles, I have gone no further than reading the abstract. If it is well written, it can give you a concise overview of everything you need to know about the paper. For most online journals the abstracts are available for free and you don’t even have to have an institutional subscription or Athens account.

Unfortunately, some abstracts just offer a tantalising glimpse of what might be within the paper or they are just downright oblique, which means you will have to delve further. At most they might give you an idea of things to look out for in the main article.

Category 1 and 2 articles can be quite straightforward to scan through if the author has come across the idea of subheadings or if they have bothered to draw you a nice diagram — so look through for these things first.

With Category 3 papers, steer well clear of the Methods and Results sections initially and focus your attention on the Introduction, Background, Discussion and Conclusion sections.

Look at the References section to see if you can find other useful things to read.

Don’t think you have to understand every word

Sometimes the best thing to do is to try to read a section as quickly as you can. Just skim over the text. Don’t stop if you can’t get the meaning of something initially — keep going to see if you can get a vague impression of what they are talking about overall.

Before reading it again, see if you can summarise it in your own words.

If you do go back to read something in more detail, have a glossary handy to cope with the long words academics use to make things sound scientific.

  • Do you have other any tips and tricks for reading academic writing?
  • Do you have any favourite resources for finding out about theory and research?

Further reading

Related post: What makes a theory useful?


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  1. #1 by David Winter on 10 March 2010 - 22:41

    Here is a good example of a review article to get you started.

  2. #2 by Ghislaine on 11 March 2010 - 10:40

    I reckon you deserve a prize just for the title! I was a researcher for 10 years and used every one of your tips. I’m only just coming back to the wonderful (?) world of academic articles for my theories assignment and finding it frankly much harder this time round (think this is a science vs social science thing though…).
    Actually, I liked this so much I’d like to disseminate it more widely to the researchers and PhD students I work with. Would that be OK with you?

    • #3 by David Winter on 11 March 2010 - 10:56

      Please feel free to spread it around. If I can reduce someone’s suffering by a fraction, it will have been worth it.

      I know what you mean about the science/social science difference. In science you can use plain language without looking non-academic (mainly because you can bamboozle people with formulae). In social science, if you use straightforward language you run the risk of being seen as not serious enough.

      If you have any tips of your own to add, please let me know. I’m always looking for more ways to make my life easier!

  3. #4 by John King on 27 March 2010 - 17:08

    Within the entrepreneurship education field research is effectively disseminated via regular one day conferences, such as those led by HEEG. These conferences tend to contain approximately equal proportions of academics presenting hard research, best practice case studies, and practical workshops.

    Generic careers practice feels much more dissociated from research evidence. I certainly don’t seem to get invited to these types of conferences!

    • #5 by David Winter on 27 March 2010 - 22:13

      These conferences do sometimes happen in the careers field. Check out the new Links page for some organisations that organise such things.

  1. How to comment on blogs… « Careers – in Theory

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