Like many postgrad students, I started my PhD by ambitiously stacking up the literature, downloading article after article, and telling myself I would ‘read it ALL’. I started reading… making notes… carefully filing papers away, and then completely forgetting what they were about. Sometimes I’d file an article and realize I already had a copy of it – complete with highlighted sections and interesting comments. Idiot. What a total waste of time. (Ok, this does still happen sometimes).


Unfortunately I don’t think I was alone. The thing is the library of research literature is usually so vast, and the new researcher is so very small, so how can one possibly get through all the material? Well, one can’t. Perhaps by the end of a long career specialising in a topic a researcher may have ploughed through the lot (but I highly doubt it). So what should you do? Read efficiently. This means reading quickly, but processing what you read, interacting with the material and analyzing it as you go. NOT reading Every. Single. Word.

What about ‘Speed Reading’?

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could just read more quickly? Gobble up papers and neatly digest all that information with minimal effort… I thought so anyway. So I went to a speed reading workshop, and learnt about ‘chunking’ (expand your peripheral vision to read chunks at a time rather than one word a time), ‘sharking’ (train yourself not to go back on words once they are read, but instead to move swiftly and smoothly – like a shark – through the text) or ‘channeling’ (not moving eye gaze all the way to the edge of the text, but instead reading through a ‘channel’ down the centre of the page). Using a pencil to keep your eye gaze on track and force your eyes to plough on is also recommended.

I think words-per-minute could well be improved using these methods, but reading scientific material isn’t really about speeding through the words – it’s about understanding the concepts and actively thinking about material as we read it. Reviewing as we go, comparing to what we are planning to do, or what others have done. And – hopefully – remembering what on earth we read about. So, it is not about ‘speed reading’, but ‘smart reading’. Hooray for abstracts and figures…

6 tips for HOW TO READ A PAPER.

  • Read with purpose. Ask yourself why you are reading this particular paper? Is their method or sample the same as yours? Was it referenced by another paper with conflicting results? Is it just published – or a seminal paper from which many others have stemmed? Have some context to your reading – that should help you stay focused and get the information that you need.


  • What did they DO and what did they FIND OUT? You need to answer this as quickly as possible and then you can decide if you are going to invest a precious hour or three reading through the details.   As with writing, do NOT start at the beginning and plod your way through: you will undoubtedly waste your time. You will read things that are not directly relevant to your work and probably forget what you read anyway (trust me – I know).


  • So how do you find out what they did and how they did it? Well, the abstract is hopefully useful, but really you want to make up your own mind about results and gather details that are most relevant. So check the abstract then get straight to the good stuff – the pictures. If you can grasp what is going on in the figures you should be able to work out roughly what was done, and what the most important results were (according to the authors).  Then use the information you’ve got from the figures to guide you through the methods and results (this may be where important but inconvenient results are hidden – so check carefully!)


  • If you’re still interested, and you still think this piece of research is worth your time, then go back and skim through the introduction and discussion. ‘Skim through’ could mean different things – some people may now use those speed-reading skills, ‘sharking’ or ‘chunking’ their way through the text (which now sounds quite exciting). My preferred method is to read the subheadings to get an overview then skim through paragraphs underlining and circling and highlighting the important concepts and points.  


  • Finally – the proper read through (but by now you will have a good idea of what it’s all about, so it shouldn’t take too long). I annotate as much as possible (on the computer and on paper), even if I’m just summarizing a paragraph in a few words.   Ask questions (these do not have to highly intellectual or insightful questions, the point is to help you ‘get it’. So things like ‘But why?!?’ or ‘Yes! I agree’ are common in my book). Whatever you do – keep your reading purpose in mind.


  • Come up with a good record keeping system. Summarise key points, or perhaps sort according to which papers make similar or conflicting arguments with regards to your particular research topic.


But what if you are reading in a foreign language? If reading in English is slow going for you, then it is even more important to find ways to read more efficiently. I suspect any ‘speed reading’ techniques would only add to confusion and not help understand the material at all. So, all the more reason to decide WHY you are investing your time in a paper, to make sense of the figures, to interact with the material and to question it. Make sure you understand concepts – and if you’re not sure, discuss with a colleague or supervisor.


Happy reading!

Comments - 2 Responses to Smart reading for academic papers (or ‘How To Tackle Literature Mountain’)

  1. Great article, totally what I needed.

  2. travesti says:

    Thank you very much for the content. I wish you continued success.

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