How to Read an Academic Paper in Ten Minutes
Reading an academic paper in 10 minutes is
a bit of a cheat a clever tactic, but if you really do need to read it, you’re going to have to read the whole thing.
I used to give this advice to honours-level students when I was an academic. A friend prompted me for it yesterday so I dug this out and tidied it up.
In your career as a student, a researcher or a curious person, you will come across many more academic papers than you actually need to read. “Reading” a paper in “10 minutes” is actually about using the structure of a typical academic paper to help you skim it in a constructive way. You should do this to decide if you need to put in the effort to read the whole thing.
The ultimate aim is, of course, to read the smallest number of papers as possible while having read all of the papers you need.
First, read the title. Titles of academic papers are generally bad. Move on to the next step.
Second, read the abstract. The abstract is the authors’ summary of what they think the paper is about. Start with the first sentence, then skip to the last sentence.
If you’re convinced this is completely the wrong paper, STOP. Otherwise, you should probably read the whole abstract.
Third, skip right to the conclusion. Start with the first sentence, then skip to the last sentence. If you’re convinced this is completely the wrong paper, STOP. Otherwise, you should probably read the whole conclusion.
The conclusion will work in one of two ways. One way is that it will tell you the actual results of the research that was written about in the paper. If the results aren’t what you need, you should probably STOP. If they are interesting, keep going.
The other way a conclusion can work is it will say how the results of the research fit into a bigger picture. If you encounter this type of conclusion, you might need to jump back to the section before the conclusion to find the results. Just like the other type of conclusion, if these aren’t the results you need — STOP. Otherwise, keep reading.
If the results seem interesting, you are probably committed to going further, unless you’ve already decided that you’re not going to read this paper at all.
Maybe check the references
If you get this far, but don’t end up reading the whole thing, you might look through the references or bibliography for other, related, papers that are closer to what you’re actually going to read.
Fourth, go back to the beginning of the paper and skim through the headings. This will give you an idea of the structure of the paper.
Fifth, look at the pictures. See if there is information in the figures, tables and diagrams that you can use to decide if this paper is telling you something really useful.
By now you are well into it. You should know what the authors of the paper are trying to tell you, and you should be able to follow someone else talking about this paper in a seminar.
(HINT: do up to this step to “read” the papers for seminars that your peers are giving)
If you are now convinced that this paper is not what you need: STOP. Otherwise, keep going.
Sixth, read the topic sentences of all the sections from the introduction to the conclusion. A topic sentence (in a well written paper) is the first sentence of each paragraph. Perhaps you could read the first and last sentence of each paragraph if you’ve got time to spare. Or if the paper is poorly written.
By now, you have “read” the whole paper. Congratulations. Even more than that, you’ve been through it at least twice so you now know how it is structured, making it even easier for you to find things in it later.
Seventh, go back and read the abstract. (Yes, again!) You do this to cement in your head the authors’ summary of what they think the paper is about. Perhaps you disagree with them? Then you need to decide if they’ve written a bad abstract or if your understanding is flawed. (Or possibly both.)
Now, if you get to this point, you should more than likely STOP. Read no further unless you so completely convinced that this paper will allow you to progress in your own research that it is worth spending the 10-30minutes to (re)-read the whole thing.
Using this method to “read” papers means that in the time it takes you to plod through each and every paper you come across, at 20-30 minutes a paper, or two an hour, you could get through six or more! (Or, let’s be honest here: you could get through the same 2 papers in less than half the time!)
“Reading” a paper in “10 minutes” is
cheating a tactical approach to using the structure of a paper to help you skim it productively.
If you really do need to read the paper, you’re going to have to read the whole thing.