Reading academic articles efficiently

Helping EAP students to become the masters and not the servants of the texts they read .

A friend has just sent me two articles related to his research interests. They are only tangentially interesting for me but I want to respond to them so as to have a little email exchange and an interaction. I no longer get the chance for the detailed and interesting discussions we used to have when we worked together. I haven’t got time to read the complete articles and it isn’t necessary for my purpose so instead I can sample them in about five minutes to extract some nuggets to use in my email interaction. Sampling academic articles is also a skill I teach my EAP students so they can become masters of their sources rather than servants (Alexander et al., 2018, pp.137-144).

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay 

Sampling is different from skimming, scanning and reading for gist because it is more purposeful. When you sample a text you have a clear purpose for reading and you know how to use the basic generic structure to find the elements that will match that purpose. In my case the research report structure is as follows:

  • Title – the shortest summary of the paper
  • Abstract – which tantalises the reader (like a film trailer) with the main contribution but is written in a dense nominalised style
  • Introduction – an argument for the importance of doing the research, structured from general to specific ideas with a background sentence at the beginning and a purpose statement at the end
  • Literature review – which may be part of the introduction or a separate series of sections with sub-headings that summarise the main concept in each section. It provides the justification for doing the research and for the methodology employed
  • Methods/results – for papers that collect data but not necessary to read unless I’ve decided to base my research on their approach or compare my results to theirs
  • Discussion/conclusion – an argument, which starts with a reminder of the purpose and usually provides a concise summary of the main findings to support a claim about the contribution of the research.

If I only have five minutes to get a sense of the paper then I read the title, the abstract, the first and last sentences of the introduction and the first 2-3 sentences of the discussion/conclusion. Of course, this only works if the authors have followed the genre conventions to the letter and not decided to do something tricky like put their purpose statement at the beginning of the introduction. The generic nature of research articles is sometimes criticised by teachers who want to encourage a more creative style of writing in their students. However, it is precisely the consistent structure that allows me to sample papers very quickly to see whether they match my purpose. I’m looking for creativity in the content not creativity in the structure.

In the case of the papers my friend sent me, I was intrigued by a concept ‘the zombie university’ (Wood, 2010) in a paper from a South African context, where perhaps magic is more salient in the environment than it is in the UK. I decided to explore this a bit more by using the ‘magical’ function ctrl+F in pdf files to locate all instances of zombie in the paper. This took me to an explanation of the concept on pages 11 & 12. By reading the sentences surrounding the word zombie, I got a clear idea of its meaning, because another generic aspect of research articles is the importance of defining concepts precisely so readers can’t easily argue with the definition.

For students whose first language is not the one the paper is written in, sampling a text can help them to extract a sense of the ideas without getting lost in the dense academic style. In particular, the abstract is often very dense with nominalisations, which reduce space but make it hard for students to extract ideas. I ask students which is the shortest summary of the paper and they usually identify the abstract. However, it is actually the title. Titles are noun phrases so they are useful for familiarising students with noun phrase structure. They often have a general to specific structure, separated by a colon, as the paper about the zombie university does, e.g. ‘Occult innovations in higher education: corporate magic and the mysteries of managerialism’ (Wood, 2010). Occult innovations is generic, whereas corporate magic is a little more specific.

Also, titles are what appear in a list of hits from a web search engine or academic database so understanding titles can help students to extract information about the research quickly in order to decide if they want or need to read the paper. A useful framework for analysing titles is:
Concept > context > problem > question.
Using this framework to analyse the paper gives us

  • Concept = managerialism
  • Context = higher education
  • Problem = mysteries
  • A guess at a research question: How can concepts such as magic and occult help us to understand corporate decisions at university?

In fact the actual purpose is shown in a claim somewhat buried in the second paragraph of the introduction: ‘When certain forms of management that have become distinctive features of universities today are viewed as occult practices [i.e. magic], they acquire a special functionality and significance they would otherwise lack.’ (Wood, 2010, p. 228).

Students can then be guided to read the first and last sentences of the introduction and the beginning of the discussion / conclusion to check their analysis and add more detail to the framework. They can then try the ctrl+F function in pdf documents (or Find in WordTM) to locate collocations of the concept. Similarly searches for functional words such as define or problem can often help to locate useful claims that students may wish to reference. A final strategy is to ask students to use a simple sentence template for summarising the key points in their analysis:

[Authors] investigated [concept/topic] in [data collection context]. They aimed to [purpose] by/using [method]. They claimed that [main conclusion/ contribution] based on [results/analysis], e.g.,
Wood (2010) applied the concepts of the occult and magic to management practices in South African universities. She aimed to use this perspective to interrogate the corporate restructuring of higher education. She claimed that innovation in universities has led to intricate hierarchical structures, thriving on secrets and mysteries, more reminiscent of the feudal structures of the Middle Ages.

This process of sampling and analysing papers, using the framework outlined above, gives students mastery over the content. Instead of reading inefficiently word by word, they can gain a general understanding to help decide whether to read in more detail. This also helps students to move away from closely paraphrasing ideas they want to borrow towards developing their own voice in their writing.

Wood, F. (2010). Occult innovations in higher education: corporate magic and the mysteries of managerialism. Prometheus, 28/3, pp. 227–244.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm a teacher and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

5 thoughts on “Reading academic articles efficiently”

  1. A succinct description of an extremely useful approach to reading a research paper — so much more useful than the very vague notion of ‘skimming for gist’ and it uses the tools at our fingertips for scanning for specifics. I like the term ‘sampling’, is it yours?

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    1. I’m not sure if ‘sampling’ is original but I haven’t seen it anywhere else in relation to reading texts – of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, just that I haven’t found it. I thought of it in relation to sampling across a population for data collection, although it’s purposeful not random sampling.

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  2. Thank you so much for this beautifully concrete example of how to help someone read something more effectively. I work with teachers (usually EFL, some EAP) doing the Cambridge Delta and they have to do one of their assignments on a receptive skill (theoretical background essay + 50-60 minute observed lesson with detailed plan) that helps students address an element of what they have talked about in the essay. It is hard to get them to see what we mean by ‘the students needing to take away a technique they can use independently’ without using up (so to speak) one of the ‘classic’ sub skills or strategies, but this works as that kind of example on one level, while simultaneously offering practical tips to those teachers who are struggling themselves to process academic articles at speed in order to write the assignments (there is frequently a multiplicity of layers on this course).
    I enjoyed your book and frequently recommend it to those teachers in an EAP environment and now get the sense I am going to enjoy (and be able to exploit for training purposes, with all credit given of course) the ideas in this blog.

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      1. Useful link – thank you. Some steps on from what I am trying to deliver (as you partly suggest), but practical advice some of which could be stepped down to various assignments (as we are asking them to do their own mini research projects each time in a way and our problem is for many of them it seems to be the first time they have had to do any of the gathering, sorting and choosing).

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