How to Read an Academic Publication

In this course library, you'll encounter a lot of different kinds of sources: informational web sites, white papers, media articles, and more. But likely the most common type of source is the peer-reviewed academic publication.

Academic publications are very different from what you may have read elsewhere, and they require some particular strategies. I'll first share the way I think about academic publications, and then I'll share a few other views from around the community.

In my opinion, the important thing to recognize about academic publications is that they typically serve at least two primary functions: to make a contribution, and to justify that contribution. Papers will often be grounded around some claim, such as "minimally guided instruction is likely to be ineffective" or "engagement with a metacognitive tutoring system improves students' participation". A significant portion of the paper will then be spent justifying that claim based on the analysis that has been conducted. Whether or not the claim is adequately justified is a key factor in whether the paper passes peer review and is ultimately published.

What that means, though, is that in many cases, you the reader likely do not need to ingest the entire paper. You are most likely interested in the claims and contributions that the paper makes. What does it say about learning? What does it say about existing tools? How do these claims affect my work? These questions are all based on those ultimate claims. It's great to be able to thoughtfully critique the methodology and analysis used to justify these claims, but given the short period of time you have in this class, you may want to focus primarily on the claims themselves, and leave learning to critique methodology for another day.

Given that, here is the way I, personally, read most academic publications:

  1. Read the abstract. This will give you a good, high-level outline. Generally, this will tell you if you're actually interested in reading the rest of the paper.
  2. Read the introduction. If you're still interested in the paper after reading the abstract, read the introduction. Look at the structure of their argument. Map the paper's topic in your mind to other projects with which you're familiar.
  3. Read the conclusion. Find out what the paper is claiming. You likely already had an idea of this from the abstract, but read the conclusion to get it in more detail.
  4. Read other relevant sections. If you still have questions after reading the conclusion, then return to the body of the paper and read further. In my experience, oftentimes you'll be satisfied simply hearing the conclusion of the paper, and you'll be ready to move on. For papers that are more narrowly applicable to your work, though, you may be interested in learning more about the design of their tool or their methodology because you may want do something similar in your own project.

The goal of this process is to ensure the majority of your time is spent in useful reading, not simply in completing reading assignments. Similarly, reading publications should be a personal experience: you should be searching for the application of what you're reading to your work.

Other Views

Of course, that's just my view. Reading academic publications is a topic on which many people have written. Here are a few other views:

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