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4.How To Read An Academic Article

Reading an academic article is not like 'regular' reading. You don't start at the beginning and wait for the big reveal at the end. And then there's the parallel issue of 5.How to Write a Precis and Memo for a Source Note.

You read like a predator. You're after something. How you read the article on one day is not how you might read it another, because by then you want something different out of it. Generally, I read like this:

  • First time: just the abstract, maybe the intro
  • Second time: intro, conclusion
  • Third time: discussion, conclusion
  • Fourth time: methods

Four times! And each time I read it, I'm making different kinds of notes because I'm after different things. If I've read a stack of five papers, and I've just been reading the abstract, I now know which ones I want to dive into. My second reading then focusses on those papers, and what they conclude. This helps change my thinking, and makes me realize that perhaps I need to cycle back to some of the other papers, or perhaps dive deeper... reading is cyclical, as an academic. So I'll have a note with the basic information about an article, all of its bibliographic data so I can cite things properly. I might even have a small summary of the paper in that note (see questions below). Then I'll have lots of atomic notes, individual thoughts or observations. These atomic will be tagged with key questions I think they might help answer. These atomic notes will also all contain a link to the original bibliographic note, so I know where I'm drawing from. These atomic notes might also link to other atomic notes, or link to other bibliographic notes, if appropriate.

By the way, it can also be super helpful to make notes on terms, words, concepts, expressions that you don't understand.


How I do things is not the only way; you will eventually develop your own style. But seeing as how this is a first year class, I want you to do it my way for now, so that you have a good basis for developing your own emerging style. The key thing is that you're documenting and linking your thinking.

Finally, look at the footnotes. Look at the references, the bibliography. Who does this work cite? (Citation is a gift.) Add to your own reading list from such things; drop the citations into places like (but not only google scholar.) Who has cited this piece? Look up book reviews, read the subsequent literature... Reading is hard work. That's why we're taking it seriously in this course.

Reading Historical Scholarship

Reading historical scholarship is not just about understanding the content, but also figuring out how the thing you're reading is part of a broader dialogue. A useful approach to reading such material, by Danna Agmon. Note that the questions are conceptually very similar to the ones suggested by Evans, below, for readings in the Social Sciences.

I quote directly below from the helpful sheet Agmon makes available here

THOMAS: A Useful Mnemonic for Reading Historical Scholarship

When reading works of historical scholarship, the following mnemonic is a helpful tool to keep in mind as you prepare for class. All the questions are key for understanding the book, but they are arranged in ascending order of importance, from least to most important.

  • Topic: The basic questions: When? Where? What is this book about?
  • Historiography: What are the multiple scholarly conversations in which this work participates? What does it add to these conversations?
  • Organization: what is the central organizing structure of this work? Chronological? Thematic? Geographic? Are there any narrative devices put to use? How does the organization advance the argument?
  • Method: What sources are used in this book? How is this evidence analyzed? Is there an overarching theoretical or conceptual approach? How does the theory intersect with the evidence?
  • Argument: What is this author’s original thesis? What new thing does it explain?
  • So what? This could be rephrased as “significance” or “stakes.” What is important or useful about this book, beyond the confines of the topic? Put differently, why would non-specialists in the field care to read this book?

Reading literature from the social sciences etc

Here is one way to read an academic article that frames it in terms of the questions you might be asking. Incidentally, these questions might make great note headings for a summary note about a reading or resource.

Via Heather K. Evans

question clarification
the major research questions explored in this article/book are: SG you'll find this in the abstract, the intro
What is the state of prior research on this topic? What research gaps does the author intend to address? SG this'll probably be in the intro
What are the major theoretical propositions? SG ie, where is this author coming from, in terms of how they see the world?
How does the author operationalize the concepts that undergird the theoretical propositions? (SG ie, given that they see the world in a particular way, how does that translate into the method or lens they use to look at the evidence?
What data are used to examine the research question and test the theoretical propositions? SG ie what corpus of information, what archive, what primary sources is this person drawing from?
What are the major findings and what is the overall implication of the study? SG you'll find this sort of thing in the discussion, maybe a summary in the conclusion
Based on a thorough examination of the research components, offer an accurate, clear and concise critique of this article SG Given everything, does the article work? Does the evidence sustain the weight of the analysis? Did the author do what they said they were going to do in the abstract, intro?

A word about finding more scholarship

Finally, you can also plug the bibliographic information about the paper into something like google scholar to see how other people have read/reacted to the article. This can give you a sense of how the article fits into the broader scheme of things. Similarly, you can use keywords or key phrases you've identified from the paper as search terms in Google Scholar or Semantic Scholar to identify more literature around a particular problem or interest. You will also want to make use of JSTOR There are also specialist databases for particular topics so for the love of all that's holy use the resources in the library! If you go to the library guides you'll find so much. Here's the library guide for the digital humanities. On that page, you'll also find the contact details for the librarian who is responsible for this area - in this case, Martha Attridge Bufton. I know Martha; she would love nothing more for you to reach out to her to say, 'can you walk me through how to use some of these resources?'

The question you need to ask yourself is: do I want to do well at university? If so, then take advantage of everything that is on offer. Be proactive, not reactive: make the connection.