How to Read an Academic Article

31 August 2010 at 10:31 pm 50 comments

| Peter Klein |

This fall I’m teaching “Economics of Institutions and Organizations” to first-year graduate students. The reading list is rather heavy, compared to what most students are used to from their undergraduate courses and their first-year courses in microeconomics, econometrics, etc. I explain that they need to become not only avid readers, but also efficient readers, able to extract the maximum information from an academic article with the least effort. They need to learn, in other words, the art of the skim.

When I’ve explained this in the past, students have responded that they don’t know how to skim. So a couple years back I put together a little handout, “How to Read an Academic Article,” with a few tips and tricks. I emphasize that I don’t mean to be patronizing, and that they should ignore the handout if its contents seem painfully obvious. But students have told me they really appreciate having this information. So, I reproduce the handout below. Any comments and suggestions for improvement?

How to Read an Academic Article

  1. Caveat: no single style works for everyone!
  2. Klein’s basic steps for skimming, scanning, processing…
    1. Read the abstract (if provided)
    2. Read the introduction.
    3. Read the conclusion.
    4. Skim the middle, looking at section titles, tables, figures, etc.—try to get a feel for the style and flow of the article.
      1. Is it methodological, conceptual, theoretical (verbal or mathematical), empirical, or something else?
      2. Is it primarily a survey, a novel theoretical contribution, an empirical application of an existing theory or technique, a critique, or something else?
    5. Go back and read the whole thing quickly, skipping equations, most figures and tables.
    6. Go back and read the whole thing carefully, focusing on the sections or areas that seem most important.
  3. Once you’ve grasped the basic argument the author is trying to make, critique it!
    1. Ask if the argument makes sense. Is it internally consistent? Well supported by argument or evidence? (This skill takes some experience to develop!)
    2. Compare the article to others you’ve read on the same or a closely related subject. (If this is the first paper you’ve read in a particular subject area, find some more and skim them. Introductions and conclusions are key.) Compare and contrast. Are the arguments consistent, contradictory, orthogonal?
    3. Use Google Scholar, the Social Sciences Citation Index, publisher web pages, and other resources to find articles that cite the article you’re reading. See what they say about it. See if it’s mentioned on blogs, groups, etc.
    4. Check out a reference work, e.g. a survey article from the Journal of Economic Literature, a Handbook or Encyclopedia article, or a similar source, to see how this article fits in the broader context of its subject area.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Syllabus Exchange, Teaching.

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50 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Christos  |  31 August 2010 at 10:46 pm

    I didn’t appreciate this handout at first (how naive I was…) but it proved to be extremely useful as I started to develop dissertation ideas and later on. The only task that is not included and I always perform when I skim articles is to take a quick look at the data sources (that is for empirical papers). A lot of times the data sources can reveal strong and weak points of the paper fairly quickly. The typical example is when surveys suffer from selection bias and the empirical part(s) do not take account of it…hence I see the results with more caution.

  • 2. Andre Sammartino  |  1 September 2010 at 12:25 am

    For an empirical piece, I’d suggest at 2.e. that a reader might be better advised to look at the equations/hypotheses/propositions first, as these may be very effective shortcuts to understanding the premise and approach of the paper.

    But, as a generalisable plan of attack these steps work very well, and are a more systematic form of the advice I throw around to inexperienced students.

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  • 4. gabrielrossman  |  1 September 2010 at 4:54 pm

    in sociology at least i’ve found that i usually get a much better idea of what an article is about by reading the works cited section than anything else, even the abstract. consider it a case of how networks define identity.

  • 5. Rafe  |  1 September 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Pete is talking about papers with content. With a lot of sociology papers when you identify the provenance you don’t need to read the paper.

    Some students can under-perform for years for want of basic study skills. A colleague failed a third year unit, the teacher took him aside to look at the paper submitted by student X, then he went to student X to borrow his lecture notes for the supplementay exam and he saw a a glance the way he should have been taking lecture notes. BTW that shows the value of lectures over roneo handouts, the active process of listening and note-taking. Remeber the gondola kittens!

    On the craft of scholarship, don’t miss the Appendix to C Wright Mills “The Sociological Imagination”.

  • 6. Vincent Amanor-Boadu  |  1 September 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Glenn Fox has an adaptation of Mortimer Adler’s classic. I’m sure he will share it with you. Adlers advises reading everything three times, which is not very different from what Peter advises. But if you are interested, you may want to pick up Adler’s 1972 book with Charles van Doren.

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    Great article really useful

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  • 18. Bob from Business Courses  |  24 August 2011 at 1:50 am

    My students sometimes get overwhelmed when I give them a lot to read but I feel that those academic articles are necessary for them to have a better understanding of how to do business. Hopefully with the use of your guide, they can skim through the articles more effectively and learn more in less time.

  • 19. Natalia Fdz  |  11 September 2013 at 10:20 am

    Could someone please explain more carefully 3.d? What does referenced work mean? If the article I’m reading has a chart in it, does that mean I should go and check where that chart comes from? Could you clarify what does the author mean by “see how this article fits in the broader context of its subject area”? Thanks !

  • 20. Peter Klein  |  11 September 2013 at 11:13 am

    Natalia, I meant a reference work like an Encyclopedia — there are lots of Handbooks, Companions, and Encyclopedias in most academic areas. See what an expert in your field thinks of the article (or theory or construct or whatever) in question. Forward citation searches can help too — see what other people said about your article when they cited it.

  • 21. Natalia Fdz  |  11 September 2013 at 8:53 pm


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    Reblogged this on Tech Ren.

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