Flammable Penguins

Claire Blackshaw's Forest of Fun

Tips for Reading Academic Texts

Academic Research Tips
Tips for Reading Academic Texts
Original written for AltDevBlogADay

Do you ever open an academic text or scary PDF, scan for code snippets, pretty pictures, maybe read a bit then run for the hills?

One of the most important skills you learn in university, or rather you should learn but many don't, is the ability to read and write academic texts. Often when tackling a topic, someone more knowledgeable than you has spent a great deal of time on the topic, possibly with peers to research the topic. If not your exact topic then I guarantee the supporting topics have been researched. So why not stand on the shoulder of giants? These are a few little tips I often give for tackling the wild white paper.
Tip #1: Notebook or Note Taking tools are critical
First you will need a note taking method, I recommend paper if you're reading on the computer. You will need a text either printed or digital. If you're on a computer, Google Scholar is your friend. Most university computers have IP access to the PDF in the search results, some employers have paid for it, as well as libraries. Your home computer will not have free access to most papers and you will need to hand over cash.
Tip #2: Google Scholar rocks, if your employer hasn't got access check a library computer
When looking at a paper in the search results the number of citations is a good quick reference for the authority of a paper. Also if you know a well known person in the field or university known for the field you can track down papers that way. The title is often the first stumbling block, an undecipherable mess of words which seem to obfuscate rather than initiate. This is not intentional, the academic world is about concise precision trying to eliminate the ambiguity of natural evolving language. I would mention standards but that is more a dream than reality.
Tip #3: Build a list of common terms or words and their meaning
So process the title and write down every word you don't understand. Find the meaning of those words. You will want to build notes on the subject matter and commonly used words. Both to help understand the paper but also to help find other papers on the topic. Remember some words change their meaning based on context.
Tip #4: Abstract: if you don't understand it, read it
An Abstract is mostly there to tell you if you need to read the paper. If you are familiar with the field the abstract should have enough information in it to summarize the ENTIRE paper and tell someone if they should read it. If you do not understand the abstract or are unfamiliar with anything mentioned in it then chances are the paper has new information for you. In terms of the abstract readability, well, you try compressing a year of study into one paragraph ;-)
Tip #5: Intro, Expansion, Summary
In an academic paper the introduction comes first and tells them what you're going to tell them. Secondly a body which tells them, then a summary repeating what you told them. The body or sections can have this structure recursively depending on the size of the paper. As my old supervisor told me, academic papers are NOT mystery novels, there are no twists.
Tip #6: Note it, Stop, Search it
Read every sentence, do NOT skip over. If there is a single word or phrase you don't understand then WRITE IT DOWN. Stop reading, then go search it. Find the meaning as relating to the field. Sometimes there can be a rabbit hole effect. They might mention a mathematical term which leads you into a deep hole as you try understand it and process it.
Tip #7: Make note of all references, websites and sources
This is a GOOD thing. You are plugging a hole in your understanding. Academic papers should not have any throw away terms, unless a sentence says: "we dismissed the pink peanut method". Make note of any place which has useful information and make your own notes. The process of writing things down will often anchor them in your mind. If you go down a deep rabbit hole then always take a break before returning to the paper.
Tip #8: Look for alternative explanations
Sometimes a concept just won't stick in your head. Often there is a basic concept or well known crux which many people learned in high-school or university and they just take it for granted. Sometimes you've just developed a brick wall in your mind which you need to circumnavigate. Looking for alternative sources such as lecture slides, podcast, blog posts or just asking someone to explain it to you will help.
Tip #9: The deeper the rabbit hole, the more important it is to YOU, not the paper
This is going to sound strange but a really deep rabbit hole of understanding does not mean that a concept or term is important to the paper. It does mean it is important to you however. Your knowledge and mind are critical to your growth and the deeper the hole, the more there is to fill on the topic. The harder that hole in your knowledge is to fill, the more important it is to fill it. Once you're done not only will you have learnt something but you will have often solved a lot of other related problems. In my 3rd year of physics I was trying to understand a field problem, which I couldn't get. Finally my tutor helped me with it, but it took a long time and we found out that some of my basic high school level understanding of vectors and matrices was just wrong. In the process of re-educating myself on that topic all the sudden a bunch of other things I had struggled with over the last 5+ years started making sense.
Tip #10: After trying, ask for Help.
Which leads to my final tip, always be willing to ask for help after trying. Do not be lazy and immediately ask for help as that will irritate and annoy. Though once you've done some leg work, ask for help. Most of us love our fields and love talking about them and sharing our love for our personal pursuit of knowledge. I hope that this will help transform those white and black walls of text into the amazing resource and works of love they are.