Before writing an academic paper, especially a PhD dissertation or thesis, one is required to read hundreds and hundreds of journal papers. This helps the student understand the intellectual debate in his topic of study as well as identify the existing gaps that are yet to be addressed.
Given the time constraints that PhD students face, the question that begs an answer is: should a student read each journal article word-for-word, sentence-by-sentence? Or is it OK to skip some sections? How to read journal papers quickly and effectively is one of the major concerns for PhD students.
There are two main reading strategies for academic papers and specifically for journal research papers that this article will discuss.
- Structure of journal papers
- Recommended reading strategy for novice students
- Effective reading strategy for experienced students
- Other important things to do while reading academic papers
- Related posts:
Structure of journal papers
Most journal papers are structured in a similar way:
- The first page has: the title of the journal paper, the authors, the bibliographical details (journal name, issue number, volume number, and date of publication), the keywords of the journal paper, and the abstract of the paper.
- The introduction section comes next.
- The methods section.
- The results section.
- The discussion section.
- The conclusion section.
- Some journal papers may also have a limitations section.
- Lastly, the reference list section.
Recommended reading strategy for novice students
The reading strategy used by PhD students will depend on the stage of research the student is at.
For a complete novice, it is advisable to start reading journal papers in the order in which the sections appear, that is, starting from the title to the abstract, the introduction, the methods, results, discussion, and lastly to the conclusion section.
The purpose of this reading strategy is two-fold:
- to help a new student learn the flow of information in a journal paper
- to understand the purpose that each section in the journal paper serves
After reading several journal papers and understanding the above two main points, the student can start using the second reading strategy described below. This reading strategy is considered to be the most effective and efficient in that it saves readers time and they are able to get the most important information from a journal paper.
Effective reading strategy for experienced students
Step 1: Read the title of the paper
At a glance, the title can give a reader some bits of information such as the variables of the study, the method used, the population of study, some results of the study. These details can tell a reader if the paper is relevant and worth reading or not.
If the title of the journal article shows some relevance, the reader should proceed to the abstract section.
The image below shows a sample of dissection of the title of a journal paper written by Gichu et al. (2018):
Step 2: Read the abstract
The abstract is a summary of the journal paper and contains information such as: the purpose of the study (why the study was conducted), the methods used in the study (how the study was conducted), the findings (results) of the study and conclusions from the results (the interpretation of the findings).
After reading this section, determine if the paper is relevant for your own research. If it is not, you may decide to stop reading at this point. If it is relevant, proceed to the discussion section.
Step 3: Read the introduction section
The purpose of the introduction section is two-fold:
- To stimulate the interest of the readers.
- To place the study in a broader context.
The most important parts of the introduction section are the background to the study, and the aims and objectives/research questions of the study.
After reading this section, you need to understand why the study was conducted in the first place, and how it fits into your study.
Step 4: Read the discussion section
The discussion section provides detailed responses to the research questions of the paper.
It also discusses how the study findings support (or contradict) previous studies conducted by other researchers on the same topic.
You do not need to read this section in depth, you can scan through and pick out the key issues that are relevant to your study.
Step 5: Read the results section
The results section may or may not have different sub-sections each discussing a specific finding. Read the subtitles to pick out the main findings from the study.
Next look at the tables, graphs and statistics and see if they support the discussions and answer the research questions.
Step 6: Lastly, read the methods section if necessary
This section is often the most difficult to read hence it is advisable to read last, if need be.
The methods section highlights the experiments (or research methodology) that were used, and how data was collected and analysed.
You can skip this section altogether or skim through quickly to take note of any important point that you can borrow for your study. Unless you intend to replicate the study, it is not necessary to read this section in depth.
Other important things to do while reading academic papers
Take notes while you read
Effective note-taking skills are important when reading academic papers. Taking short notes serves three main purposes:
- It helps you have a clear understanding of the paper. This is especially the case if you can take the notes without referring to the paper.
- It helps you avoid plagiarism if you can write the notes in your own words. Additionally, you can note some direct quotes which are relevant for your own study.
- It saves you time when you start writing your paper because you do not need to go back to the paper and read it again.
While taking the notes, also include the citation so that it will be easier to include the bibliography after you are done writing the paper. Most reference management softwares such as Zotero and Mendley can insert the bibliographies automatically.
Conduct reference mining
Reference mining, also called citation chaining, is a very useful technique for identifying other papers and articles that are relevant to your study and that you may have missed when searching for literature.
Each academic paper or journal paper has a reference list at the end. After reading the paper, look at the reference list and highlight all the references that may be relevant to your study.
Then search for the highlighted articles from journal databases and include them in your references library.
As a PhD student, you will read hundreds of journal papers and other academic articles in order to produce a high-quality dissertation. Reading journal papers quickly and effectively is a skill that develops over time. Not every detail in a journal paper should be read. What is important is information that is relevant to a student’s own research.