How to Read an Academic Paper

The divide between theory and practice in the field of L&D and education has left me exasperated for more than a decade. I have fought for that long to try and bring the two closer together, but it’s a problem that continues to injure our work. We either rely too much on theory, and when we enter a real-life corporate situation, we don’t know how to act without our research and templates and frameworks and models. We can’t handle abstract or ill-structured problems that require problem solving, critical thinking, or relationship-building skills because we’re not used to flexing that muscle. Or we rely too much on practice and say that theory is for the nerds, and then we guess at what works and stick with that strategy for as long as we can – without realizing why that solution works or that it won’t work in every scenario. Then, we begin to fail and don’t understand why or how to fix it, and our organization thinks “but we’ve always done it this way” isn’t a valid enough reason to keep us around. Theory informed by practice is powerful, more powerful than ruminations of someone who is 20 years removed from the actual work. Practice backed by theory is compelling, compelling because it works, and our organizations cannot deny the value or its results. We can learn so much from each world – it has never made sense to me to separate them like we do. 

As a result of my frustration, I’ve wondered what I can do to help bridge the divide. If you’re like me, you’ve read hundreds – possibly thousands – of scholarly journal articles in your life. You can navigate them in just a few minutes and glean the information you need. But there are a lot of people who don’t read research for "funsies" and may find it difficult to navigate scholarly research. If you’re a practitioner, you can find really helpful ideas and use cases from the research and try them yourself – but first you have to be able to get through all those pages and all that dry language. That’s where I come in. In this article, we’ll talk about how to navigate a scholarly research article, and spoiler alert – you don’t even have to read the whole thing. Here are my tips for getting useful information from academic papers. 

Search on Google Scholar

Google Scholar provides a broad way to search through scholarly articles. You can search just like you would on Google, save search results and have them sent to your email, filter the results by date, and save results that appeal to you. Although you may not always have access to the articles – because unfortunately, a lot are behind paywalls, your local library may have a database where you can find the article and download it for free. You might also find it available simply by placing the article title into a regular Google search with the term “PDF” following it – I know some authors place the PDF of their published work for free on their personal websites, and some colleges publish articles for free as well. 

Start by Reading the Abstract

The abstract is a short summary of the paper, usually no more than 200-300 words. Read it to get an overview of the main topic, the research question, and the main findings. In fact, some people never read more than the abstract. The abstract is like the movie trailer for the paper – it should contain all the best parts. If the abstract is too confusing to understand, it’s likely that the article will have similar language. If it’s unclear what the paper is about, there’s a good chance you’ll never be able to figure it out. I recommend using the abstract to determine if it’s worth it to look through the rest of the article.

Read the Intro and Then Jump to the Conclusion

Scholarly research articles have a pretty typical structure that varies only slightly depending on the industry and type of article. Information will always be summarized at the beginning and end of research articles. Skim through the introduction. The introduction should give you an idea of the research problem and the significance of the study – perhaps even the motivation for why the study was conducted. It’ll help set the scene. Then jump to the conclusion. It will summarize both the findings and the implications, and it’ll help you understand what the key takeaways were – which is not only useful to know but can help you when you get to the “meat” of the paper.

Look at Figures, Tables, and Headings

Figures and tables can provide a quick summary of the data and the main findings. Look at them to get a sense of the research results. Most academic papers are organized with headings and subheadings that break down the research into smaller sections. Skim through the different headings and subheadings. Depending on what your goal is for reading the article, some sections may be more useful than others – looking through the headings will help you make quick work of the article.

Scrutinize the Methodology

Pay attention to the methodology to identify any limitations of the study. Some limitations will be stated outright, but others won’t. The methodology section explains how the research was conducted, including how many participants were involved, what data collection techniques were used, and other information that can help you – as a reader – assess the quality of the study. 

Really pay attention to the participants and their demographics. Many times, research makes conclusions based on a small sample size. Or they use a specific demographic of people and then generalize their results to a larger group. For example, a research study might say that they identified 8 skills all instructional designers need on the job, but when you look more closely, you’ll see they only looked at job postings and interviewed 4 instructional designers from higher education to confirm their findings. This means that generalizing the data to ALL instructional designers is misleading. Look for things like this. 

We won’t get too deep into it here – but some journals are predatory in nature – making authors pay to publish and publishing research that is questionable. Just make sure that the research you’re looking at makes sense, has references, and includes brief biographies about the authors (and the authors have expertise in the field they’re researching). All research has limitations, but it should clearly state what those are and how future research can fill those gaps.

Use Your Normal Reading Comprehension Tricks

Don't worry about understanding every detail. Academic papers can be dense and technical, and it's not always necessary to understand every detail. Focus on the main ideas and the conclusions. Use the other reading comprehension tricks you use or used when you were in school. Take notes if it helps keep track of main ideas, retain key information, and write down any questions you have. Read portions out loud if that helps you to navigate difficult text. Discuss it with a friend. Print it out and highlight relevant passages. Whatever will make it easier to read and digest – there’s no shame in it.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

There’s also no shame in asking for help. If you're having trouble understanding a scholarly journal article, you can ask for help from a local librarian at a public library or college. You can also put out a request on social media - Reddit is a great place to ask for help anonymously. You might also reach out to the author if you have specific questions or want help with some of the ideas. I can’t promise that the author will respond, but I know that for me – I spent a lot of time and effort doing the research I did for my PhD, and I will talk to anyone about it! I think a lot of other researchers feel the same way – so don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

Hopefully, this has helped give you some ideas that make research articles seem less daunting. I think the biggest piece of advice I can give is that you don’t have to read the ENTIRE thing for it to make sense, increase your understanding, and give you useful ideas to try in practice. Good luck and happy reading!

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A framework is a basic conceptual structure of ideas used to support or guide someone.
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