Before you start reading, it’s essential to understand what you hope to gain. If you’re a student, exploring academic papers for your modules or assignments, you’ll often be new to the subject area. In this case, it helps to note down what you’re looking to learn. Are you interested in learning more about a particular theory to critique and compare it to another? Are you practising critical reading and summarisation skills? Alternatively, as a postgraduate student or someone with more experience, you might be looking to update yourself on your field or research, or delve into a new subject area. Understanding this will help to guide your focus, and grasp what the most important takeaways are for you, beyond the core assumptions of the research.
The First Pass
In this first pass, you’ll focus on the title, abstract, introduction, sub-headings and conclusions. This will provide an overview of the paper, and general understanding. As suggested by this article, the first pass should highlight what category the paper belongs to, and the context. For example, the paper might analyse an existing issue (category) using a particular set of theories (context). In addition, this pass should allow you to judge the correctness of their assumptions, and the paper's main contributions to the field. A paper that is well-written will provide this sense of clarity within the first pass, allowing you to judge the relevance of the paper to your needs.
The Second Pass
Now that you’ve decided the paper is relevant, it’s time to start grasping the content using the method, results and discussion. At this point, the details aren’t too important. During this pass, it’s good to look over the results and any tables, or figures to understand the general technicalities of the research. You can make sense of the author’s approach by reading the discussion and re-reading the introduction. This will help piece together the core findings, and how they were reached, alongside why this was the approach used. Depending on how familiar you are with the terminology and context, this can take up to an hour, if not longer.
The Third Pass
The process of the third pass will depend on what you hope to gain, but the core idea is to begin reading both critically and creatively. For someone new to the subject area, this might mean first reading further papers within the references to get a feel of the subject area, and understand the significance of the findings. Otherwise, this will be critically asking questions about the paper as you read, questioning the author's assumptions and approach, while examining their methods and results in more detail. To read creatively is to improve upon the research and re-imagine it in new ways, how would you approach the problem? What were the positives of their research? Did they take a new approach or have a well thought out analysis? Do the findings have more potential than noted by the authors? Being able to approach papers in a critical and creative way is important for connecting the dots, forming new insights and providing critical analysis in your own writing. For more guidance, see this document.
- Skim over the complex details. It’s important to get the broad picture first. You might find terminology and concepts become clear with some context. If not, you can further explore these after the second pass to improve your understanding.
- Be ready to dedicate the time. It’s normal to read a paper multiple times, and for the reading process to take several hours depending on your expertise and goals. For example, as someone more experienced, the first and second pass might be fairly quick but taking the time to read critically and creatively can still be a lengthy process.
- Learn from others. Each field is slightly different, so asking for advice or clarification from those within your subject area can help you to deepen your understanding, and learn new ways to approach academic reading. You can read advice from scientists at various career stages and within different fields here.
- Utilise digital tools. Now, technology can support us through the academic reading process, increasing efficiency when completing those first and second passes, and aiding deeper exploration during the third pass. In genei, AI powered summarisation makes getting a detailed birds-eye view easy by extracting key information, figures, and references. You can begin to read creatively and critically using the note-taking tools to summarise paragraphs into your notes, which will be accessible across multiple documents, allowing you to connect the dots. You can also make use of the question and search features, to find exactly what you need.
For further reading, you can access the paper’s references and import them into genei to read, summarise and annotate too. Similarly, there are tools that are perfect for finding related papers, and diving deeper into various fields of research. Research Rabbit is an app that introduces a “novel way to search for papers and authors, monitor new literature, visualize research landscapes, and collaborate with colleagues”. Researcher allows you to create a personalised feed of papers, improving discovery and keeping you up to date.