Using Academic Papers as a Study Resource
Most of the additional information you need when completing an MSc course is based around reading academic papers. In the beginning we can feel a little lost when we approach the reading of some contributions as some of the authors you will meet almost seem to delight in proving how opaque they can be in their writing.
Unfamiliar terms or using technical language, neologisms, in odd ways can make the writing seem impenetrable at first glance. I often hear myself saying what on earth is this person on about!
So we need a strategy to gain the most from the reading.
Using a paper as a resource:
- Carry out a reconnaissance of the journal paper;
- Read the abstract, conclusion, section headers and tables/figures);
- Set down some questions to interrogate the paper;
- Read the paper again quickly and make notes answering your questions.
If the author has put down an exemplar argument you wish to use as a quote make an accurate note of the location. Especially for quotes, write down the page number as well as the exact words of the author. It is a devil of a job when you are doing the final write up of an essay to corral and find all the references.
When you see a new term check you understand the term exactly and create ‘idiot cards’ with the definitions.
Analysis approach and working method for Paper review:
- I always look for the journal that published the paper. The journal will be an indicator of quality and whether the paper was assessed before publication?
- When was the paper published and what is the likely-hood of change occurring in the intervening time? The peer review process can take a long time before publication some papers can be quite outdated by events;
- You should read the abstract to identify the key argument – also the conclusion if there is one;
- How did the author state the argument and can is it traceable through the paper?
- You should check where does the evidence come from. I always check if the argument grounded and warranted? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence and method?
- You must identify the concepts that were used and which alternatives were explained;
- How did the author define the concepts and issues defined what level of assumed knowledge was behind the paper?
- Assumptions explicit and implicit;
- What was the point that was she trying to say?
- Use of language – whether pejorative for example?
Looking for the nuggets
I recommend leaving a column down the right hand side of a sheet of A4 for further notes after you have read other things and as you go along. When you have read a few journal papers you will find that some contradict or critique each other. You need to make a note of these contradictions and critiques as cross-references. These will be useful later for the essay write up and will gain you kudos.
When you read a good literature review in a paper note how the author funnels the argument onto just the point that their paper answers. It’s as if all the other researchers in the field have completely overlooked this obvious and important area!! This is a good technique for your literature review in a course essay and your professors will be looking for it.
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