Reading Effectively #3 – Understanding Academic Texts

(video coming soon!)

In my last blog, I went through why some academic articles can be so difficult to read.  They tend to be very formal and quite complex, and this is because their main goal is to share research findings or new ideas with other academics.

But we can start to understand academic articles better if we look at how they’re structured.

Firstly, this is helpful because it helps us understand the paper’s aims and purpose. If we can identify what the author’s goal is, or the key piece of knowledge they want to share, it can make it easier to see how the information in the rest of the paper fits.

Secondly, knowing the structure can help us figure out the purpose of each section, and therefore how all of the information comes together. This can also help us to decide what is relevant to our reading purposes, and what isn’t.

Finally, understanding the structure can help us navigate more quickly through the document in order to find what we need.

So let’s break it down.

 

 

Academic journal articles tend to be written according to two formats (though there are some exceptions!). These are research reports and argumentative/persuasive texts.

 

Research Reports

Research reports are used to share new research findings. This means the researchers have collected new data using a particular method, and want to share their results and the implications. They tend to follow quite a quite structured template and are typically made up of the following:

Title

The title is usually very descriptive. It should summarise the main idea or focus of the article in a single sentence. This can already give you an idea of whether or not the article will be of use to you.

 

Abstract

The abstract presents a summary of all the main points of the report. It should give you an indication of the paper’s aims, the methods and the results and implications. It should also include a hypothesis, and whether or not this hypothesis was demonstrated.

Some abstracts show this information really clearly and include headings. Others require you to pick up on discourse markers, which are words used to structure writing.

If you want to know the aim or purpose, look out for: ‘aims to’, ‘proposes’, ‘suggests’, ‘investigates’, ‘evaluates’, ‘considers’, ‘discusses’, ‘presents’ or similar.

For the background or context, look out for: ‘it is widely accepted that’, ‘attention has been drawn to’, ‘the consensus is’, ‘much is/little is known about’, ‘several theories have been proposed to’, ‘despite this’, or anything that seems to tell you the problem the authors are trying to solve.

For methods, look out for: ‘this study used’, ‘performed,’ ‘applied’, ‘simulated’, ‘surveyed’, or look out for names of particular methods such as ‘qualitative’, ‘quantitative’, or ‘mixed methods’.

For the results and conclusions/implications, look for: ‘found’, ‘evidences’, ‘proves’, ‘show’ ‘illustrates’, ‘reveals’, ‘exposes’, ‘strengthens the idea that’, or similar.

Knowing this language can also really help you when trying to figure out the rest of the paper, so try to familiarise yourself with it as much as you can!

 

Introduction

The introduction of a research article may look a bit different to what you might be used to in essay introductions. It’s purpose is to provide the rationale for the paper – the why – which means it will include the article’s aims and hypothesis, and it will also probably provide quite detailed background.

The background should provide some context for the research and help the reader understand why the research is significant, what big questions it is answering, or what problems it is addressing. It may include some definitions of key terms or concepts, or outline any theoretical positions that are relevant.

There will also probably be a literature review. A literature review is when the author describes what kind of research has been done before and how their own research builds on, or deviates from it. They should be addressing a gap in the literature, which means their research is doing something other research hasn’t done before. Some articles will be very clear and use a heading. Others will weave it in with the background, and the two may be quite closely connected. You can usually tell that a paper is outlining the literature, because there will be a lot of references very close together.

Note that there may or may not be a heading to introduce the introduction, including headings for the background and literature review. That’s why knowing what to expect in each is important, so you can identify them!

Methods

The methods or methodology section tells the reader how the research was conducted. This can be the most confusing section of the article, as it will often involve very technical language.

Some methods sections more descriptive than others, but they should break down all of the key elements of their research so that they can be replicated by others. This may include the subjects of the study (or participants), the survey methods or instruments, sampling methods, inclusion and exclusion criteria, equipment used, and how the data was analysed.

The authors may state outright whether the research was qualitative, quantitative or mixed. If they don’t, you can often tell by the results and how they’ve been analysed. If you’re looking at mostly numbers and statistics, it’s probably quantitative. If they’ve used interviews, focus groups or observations which record experiences, you’ve probably got qualitative data. If they use both, it’s mixed methods!

The method is an important section to pay attention to if you need to critique the paper, as it can reveal problems with the research: if the methods are bad, the results will be untrustworthy. If, however, you really only need to know the implications of the findings (the discussion), then you may not need to read this as deeply.

Results

The results section breaks down the raw data obtained by the researchers. The data are usually presented in the form of figures, tables, and/or graphs.

This section can often be very technical and complex. If you’re new to the discipline, or just starting out at uni, this section may seem quite overwhelming. Don’t panic! If you don’t understand what the results are showing you, head down to the discussion where the authors will discuss what the results mean.

If you are critiquing the article, it’s important to analyse this section quite closely to determine whether the results are reliable and significant. You may notice inconsistencies across data sets, or omissions of inconvenient data. As you become more familiar with research methods and how hypotheses are tested in your field, you’ll get better at this.

 

Discussion

The discussion is the most important part of the article, and if you’re looking for evidence to back up your own arguments or support your research, this will be the section you want to pay most attention to.

The discussion will show how the research question has been answered and offer an analysis or interpretation of the data. This includes what the results mean, particularly in relation to the hypothesis or aims of the article.

The authors might compare the results with similar results in other studies, and show how this new data contributes to the field. The discussion should also address the strengths and limitations of the study: what were they able to do, and what was beyond their scope?

 

Conclusion

The conclusion will specify the key understandings that have come from this research. It may not read quite the same as a conclusion in an essay, because they probably won’t spend much time summarizing the entire article. Instead, it should draw out the implications of the study: what do the results show? Why are they important? Do they change our understanding of anything? Do they reveal new questions that need to be addressed? Do they prove something significant?

The authors may answer all or just some of these questions, but importantly, they should be demonstrating why these results are significant. They may also make recommendations for further research, or for policy or industry specific changes that can be made as a result of the research.

 

References

This one seems pretty obvious – it’s where the authors detail the references used throughout the article. But I want to draw your attention to it because this is an area that’s often overlooked, when it can actually be really useful!

Firstly, if you’re critiquing the article, you want to pay attention here to see where the authors have sourced their evidence from. Are they recent, peer-reviewed, trustworthy sources? Have they used a great range, or relied on the same authors again and again?

Secondly, if you need to do more of your own research, this list can be a goldmine! Scan through to see what other research articles or publications could be useful for your purposes. I often find most of my most relevant evidence by going through the reference lists of other authors!

 

As you can see from the example paper I’ve used throughout, these sections aren’t always clearly labelled, and sometimes they bleed into each other a bit (especially the introduction and discussion/conclusion). This is why familiarising yourself with what to expect in both content and language in each section can really help. That way, if there isn’t a clear heading, you can still scan the paper for key words that will tell you how the paper is structured. I’ll talk more about scanning and skimming next time!

 

Argumentative Articles

Argumentative or persuasive articles often look quite different to research reports. This is because they are not writing about collecting and analyzing new data, but rather they put forward an idea, argument or interpretation, and use evidence from others to support them. In this way, they may feel more familiar to you because they resemble essays. However, they are often quite a lot longer and more complex than a typical undergraduate essay!

Like a research article, they will generally still include a title, abstract, introduction, conclusion and reference list. It’s the stuff in the middle that changes quite a bit. What is important to note is that in these articles, authors are putting forward an argument. Understanding this argument will help you to navigate the rest of the article. So, it’s important to identify what the author’s aim is in the introduction. Look out for wording like, ‘this paper argues that …’, or ‘it is put forward that …,’ or ‘this article analyses …’ or ‘this paper suggests …’. If you want to know more about what makes up an academic article, check out my blog about writing an argument!

 

Once you know this, you can determine how they are putting their argument together, and thus the structure of the paper. This will usually include a description or summary of the background: what theory or concepts is their position based on? What similar research has been done before? What other interpretations or analyses exist? It may then include key ideas, or premises that make up individual sections, much like the body paragraphs of your own essays. The key difference, is that the key ideas or premises will probably be much longer than they are in your own essays.

Argumentative or persuasive articles are more common in the Humanities, particularly in disciplines like English, Drama and History, where authors offer new analyses or interpretations of texts such as poems, books or historical documents. They are also common in Social Sciences, where authors put forward analyses of policies or make recommendations based on critiques of social institutions or laws.

 

Background

The authors will probably begin by outlining the background and context. This may be included in the introduction, or it may come soon after in one of the early paragraphs. It may be labelled as obviously as ‘Background’ or ‘Overview’, or it may be titled according to the key concept of that section, eg, ‘Policy Reform in Australia’.

Often, the background will be made up of a mixture of literature review (what other researchers and writers have written on this subject), historical context and an overview of any theories that the argument uses to situate itself, or that their interpretation is based on. For example, if you’re reading an article in Gender Studies, the author may spend the background section discussing the history of how gender has been perceived and understood in Australian history, and then outline Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performative in order to foreground their own argument.

This means the background section is often quite long, and may be made up of several different sections with their own headings. Watch out for this, as it may mean that the actual meat of the author’s argument doesn’t begin until as much as halfway through the article!

 

 

Key Concepts/Topics

The rest of the article will probably be broken into the key ideas that make up the author’s argument – just like an essay, but longer! You can use these headings to help guide your reading, as they will generally outline what the focus of the discussion is.

If the author does not use headings (sometimes this happens), then pay close attention to the first sentence of each paragraph to tell you what the focus is. You can also look for section breaks (where there is a whole blank line between paragraphs) to indicate that there has been a significant shift in their discussion.

Unfortunately, because argumentative articles generally rely on what has come before in order to make new points, they can be more difficult to skip through.  However, you can look out for key discourse markers and key topic words to help you skim and scan the document for what is relevant to you. I’ll teach you some strategies for doing this in the next blog!

 

Conclusion

Just like in a research article, the conclusion of an argumentative article should tell you the significance of the author’s points, and reinforce their argument. It may summarise the key points of the paper in order to demonstrate how they come together to support the author’s claim. It may also point to future directions for research, or the implications of their argument in the real world, such as recommendations. This can be a really useful paragraph if you want a very quick snapshot of the main points of the article and its significance.

 

Why Should I Know the Structure of Articles?

If you understand what to expect in each section of a research paper, you’ll know what you need to read, and what you can just skim or scan. Remember, you probably don’t have time to read everything that you are given to read, and this is especially the case when you’re conducting your own research. You need to be able to understand what the article is about and whether or not it is important for your purposes very quickly. Once you’ve sussed that out, you can then read the sections that are most relevant to your purposes in detail.

I’m going to go over some strategies reading effectively and efficiently in my next blog!

 

In the meantime, let me know if there’s any specific content you’d like to see, and remember I’m always on the look out for student contributions!

 

And last of all, don’t forget to subscribe!

Posted in
Effective Reading Study Skills

Leave a Reply