How to Read Research Papers Efficiently

How to Read Research Papers Efficiently
Published on November 16, 2021

Oftentimes approaching a journal article can be overwhelming and otherworldly - the complex vocabulary, weird symbols, and combination of graphs and numbers can easily scare off any reader. Chances are there are tons of papers sitting on your desk that you have to go through but just can’t find the motivation or don’t know where to start. In this article, we’re going to focus on how to read a scientific article quickly and efficiently. We’re going to break it down into a few steps, so it can become apparent where you should focus your attention while reading a research paper or journal article. 

Acquiring such skills can be incredibly valuable in an academic setting and beyond. The knowledge you gain from navigating a journal article efficiently helps you quickly digest information and get to a certain answer that you’ve been looking for.

So let’s start:

Steps to Follow When Reading a Scientific Article 

Step 1. Start with the Abstract

The abstract is always the best place to start as it will always give you a great idea of what the article is about and what you should expect. You’ll find it at the beginning of each article and its purpose is to give a bird’s-eye view of the entire research that’s been conducted and present some ideas behind the reasons for the study. 

While reading the abstract, focus on the reason for the study and compare it to yours. Does this help your research? Are the ideas aligned or mismatched? Can the data from this article potentially help you further your research? You should always keep these questions at the forefront while reading the abstract. 

If the answer to these questions is no, then it’s likely best to stop reading the article and move to the next one. Remember, your time is valuable, and you still need to go through a lot of papers. 

Step 2. Skim the Article

The biggest secret to mastering the absorption of a scientific journal is to avoid an information overload. One great method for learning how to read a scientific journal article is to develop the habit of quickly scanning through the article. Read the headline and look for certain keywords within the text that might be of interest to you and your research. 

It’s best to read the heading of each section of the article so that you can firmly grasp the outline of the information in the article. If you find a heading interesting, quickly scan the contents of that heading again for keywords or interesting phrases. 

Skimming the article can be done within a few minutes; if you find potential in the article, then move to the next step. 

Step 3. Read the Conclusion

The conclusion is the key to understanding the reading you’ve just skimmed. The conclusion is presented towards the end of the article, and it usually spells out exactly what the researchers were able to find, the results achieved, and a brief summary of the article. Reading the conclusion helps to understand whether or not the findings of the paper have been useful or if they can help you in your research. 

The conclusion will also give you a high level of understanding of the entire paper and whether the hypothesis presented by the paper holds true or not. 

If, after reading the conclusion, you come to the understanding that the paper is not right for your purpose, then you should move on. 

Step 4. Highlight the Most Important and Relevant Parts of the Paper

You can also use your own words to write about the article. Maybe make note of areas that are of interest to you or mark sections that are questionable and need further analysis. By writing a summary of the paper yourself, you can come back to it later and quickly determine what you thought about it or if it will be useful for your research or field of study. 

Step 5. Check Out the References

Checking the most recent and most relevant references based on the literature review can be a great help since it can direct you towards another article that can be helpful. Oftentimes one author’s approach to explaining their research may appear more clear after reading 1 or 2 more authors explain similar ideas. The references can also layout a nice framework to help you understand where the authors are coming from by knowing what type of references they’ve made. 


Things to Avoid in Reading Research Papers

1. Don’t Read the Entire Article

The truth of the matter is that you almost never need to read and digest the entirety of an article. Your time is valuable and trying to tackle every word of every article you come across will only turn you away from scientific research. Your entire purpose is to find the articles that will be more helpful to you and then dive deeper into them if necessary. 

For example, reading some sections like the methodology might be unnecessary and they can be just skimmed. Unless the methodology is absolutely relevant to your research, then most of the time you should skip this part. 

More often than not people attempt to understand the methodology section of an article and this can be a huge mistake. This section is sometimes incredibly dense, data-heavy, and intertwined with complex vocabulary. Unless you’re attempting to replicate the study, you don’t need to know every single detail of how the research was performed or how the data was obtained. Focus on looking for the results and how the researchers got there. 

2. Don’t Spend too Much Time on a Single Paper

If you follow the above steps, you should be able to determine quickly if a paper fits your needs or not. Don’t spend too much time on a paper trying to dissect every single fact. You need to be able to recognize if a paper is useful to you fairly quickly so you can move on to the next. In this way, you’ll increase your chances of finding better papers.

3. Avoid Straying from the Topic

It’s easy to fall down the reference rabbit hole and start reading reference articles that might not be too helpful to your research goal. While looking for relevant articles, make sure you get as specific as possible to avoid wasting time on references that only brush on the bigger picture. The further out you swim from your specific topic, the more tired you will be once you’ve found your way back to your goals.

Why Do We Need to Read Journal Articles Efficiently?

While working in any scientific field, it’s always vital to read the latest papers in order to stay connected to the latest developments in your field. This may seem obvious but it's always important to check the year that a journal article was published to avoid lagging behind.

Accordingly, going through journals and scientific papers is a crucial part of conducting research and gathering data in the academic setting. That’s why it’s important to learn how to read a scientific journal research paper. 

Without the proper skillsets for reading articles efficiently, you will end up spending huge amounts of time going through data sets only to find out they’re not useful for your research. Always learn to parse the data correctly and effectively. After a dozen articles or so of practicing the techniques listed above, you’ll have mastered the art of searching and finding information that will best serve you on your quest for knowledge.


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2021, Olivia Kearns, "How to Read Research Papers Efficiently," PaperScore.

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