Understanding How We Read Academic Research: Why academia can be so hard to navigate, some tips for overcoming this, and exciting technological developments that are addressing it

Having a clear and structured way of reading academic papers was always something I struggled with in university. I never properly felt like I grasped the way we were supposed to approach papers, and it sometimes made me feel disorganised. I was always envious of how easily and articulately my lecturers could seamlessly draw out the most important points, and offer really provoking critical analyses. It seemed effortless. In comparison, along with multiple course mates, I felt like even getting close to this level of understanding took such a long time, and it never really felt like I completely ‘got it’. 

Asking how to read academic papers is normal…

It took me until doing my master’s to sit down with my academic advisor, and ask outright, how are we actually supposed to read academic work? I always loved being immersed in it, but couldn’t help feeling like there might be a way to get more out of it, and unlock a level of exploration and therefore understanding that I hadn’t yet experienced. 

I understand that there is a huge epistemological divide between the arts and the sciences, and even within these broad categories. This changes the way we read and understand different types of research. I come from a social sciences background, but I believe this framework can be used and applied as a base to help understand multiple academic fields, and enhance the development of knowledge. 

A key point here is that established academics, who have been working in their fields and within academia for years, should not be used as a point of comparison. Yes, they can be aspired to, but accepting that for students, learning how to read research in the most useful way takes time, is crucial to getting the most out of it and enjoying it. Don’t try to read too many papers in one day. And accept you need to read them more than once. 

A broad breakdown on one approach to reading academic research:

Although this might sound basic and common sensical, I found it really useful laying out each of these steps, and therefore tackling each paper in a systematic way. 

Begin by reading the abstract, introduction and the conclusion. This gives you a brief overview, and you can decide if you want to continue. Next, just sit back and read the paper. Don’t try and take any notes. I found this the most useful tip of all. I always felt the need to really try and delve deep into the paper as soon as I started it, wanting everything to happen at once. This approach is destined to be overwhelming and makes it really hard to see the paper as a whole. I still find myself slipping back into this, and it’s a hard habit to break. I am not suggesting you read passively, but it is so worth taking a step back to just read the paper purely for reading. You will get so much more out of this process if you don’t skip this step. 

After this, take a break. Stretch your legs, let it simmer and let it sink in. Sit back down and write a quite synopsis from the top of your head. 

Now comes the sectioning; return to the paper and re-read more actively. By this I mean pull out key quotes or data from the start middle and end. Break these into keyword themes that follow the narrative/argumentation of the paper. Once you have identified these, see how they link together to form the main argument that runs throughout. If you want, re-read and add more quotes. Here, don’t just copy what the academic has written – think about the quotes you are choosing, what they tell you, and importantly what they don’t. Think about the author(s) and their influence. 

To take this further, look at who has cited them, and type in your keywords into Google Scholar to pull together more arguments on the topic. What is important here is that you don’t panic about being critical – this will happen organically through following this broad format. 

Developments in the academic world that are influencing this process, and offering new approaches: 

Within this whole process there is space and room to make it even more enjoyable and more accessible. This is where Acaudio comes in, making academic work more accessible and more consumable. Even before reading the initial abstract, introduction and conclusion, Acaudio means that you can listen to a summary of the paper from the academic themselves. I am jealous that this wasn’t an option during my time at university – it is revolutionary. Almost instantly you can tell if the paper is useful/relevant, and it offers a fresh way of engaging with it, stimulating new ways of learning and understanding. It will massively enhance the process above, through having a fresh and alternative way to consume academic research. I can’t underestimate how exciting this is for academics, students, and the wider public.