Reduce the pain of scholarly articles
It’s also when I hear a lot of questions like these:
• Why do we have to use scholarly articles?
• Why are they so hard to read?
• How can I make sense of them?
First, scholarly articles are how scholars exchange information. There are other ways — cocktail parties, tweets, blogs, the occasional book, but articles are still how much of what’s new in academia gets passed around.
To join the academic conversation, you have to get familiar with the discussions in the articles — it’s like having to know a certain amount about hockey before joining Don Cherry for a few “pops.”
This brings me to why they’re so hard to read. Scholarly articles are insider information, not meant for people new to the field. Just as hockey conversations between my husband and his brother are full of team stats, players’ nicknames and other impenetrable expert info they don’t have to explain to each other, academic articles are rife with jargon, graphs, and obscure references.
These articles are written for other scholars in the discipline, “fans” of that particular topic. Anyone not in that group has to do some decoding to make any sense of the information. Just like the first few times you went skating, reading your first few academic articles might be marked by stops and starts, the occasional painful fall, and a feeling of “I am never going to get this” frustration (maybe that was just my first attempts at skating). Trust me, practice helps.
How can you make sense of scholarly articles? Here are my top tips:
1. Print them. Research says you read more carefully, and get more out of articles on paper than on the screen.
2. Read the abstract and/or first paragraph, and the conclusion first, then go back and read the article start to finish — you’ll have a much better sense of what the authors are trying to prove.
3. Read as a dialogue. Engage the authors in a debate — it’s up to them to prove their point. Question them on what’s unclear. Argue with them. Congratulate them on good points.
4. Read with a pen in your hand — mark unfamiliar words, highlight what’s important, put big question marks beside points you want proven, etc.
5. Read slowly and summarize as you go. Most of what we read are tweets, Facebook posts and other brief notes, and even then we’re mostly scanning. You’re probably scanning right now! Reading slowly helps you make sense of things — to really slow down, try reading aloud, but choose your location carefully. Summarize each paragraph as you go along. I usually do that in the left margin and it makes it easier to find quotations and key parts of the article again later.
There’s a little more to it than that, but the last thing you want to read right now is an academic paper on reading. Remember, Student Learning Services and the Library can help.
Margy MacMillan is a librarian at MRU who has way too much fun at work.