Goal-oriented reading – 6 ways to read research papers efficiently

The goal-oriented reading method is a method that allows you to read research papers extremely efficiently. This method starts with you choosing the main goal of the reading first, and then guides you on how to read in the most efficient way. The logical sequence of actions will allow you to speed up the way you read research papers without sacrificing the quality of it.

Why do you need to know the goal-oriented reading method?

As researchers we need to read a lot. I think it is fair to say that, above all, journal papers are our bread and butter. Constantly, the new interesting papers come up. Some of these we are interested in because of the results they present, other ones because of the use of a new research or statistical method. I am a firm believer that the way you read the papers should reflect just that, your goal. Of course if you have time to enjoy reading all the papers in full, kudos to you. But many of academics and grad students barely keep their heads above the water when it comes to staying on top of the literature. This post is for them (us).

Why reading an abstract is not enough?

Reading an abstract first is a good way to decide whether this paper is of interest or not. And that is the only reason I would recommend reading the abstract for. I would not recommend to use reading an abstract as a quick method to substitute for reading a full paper. Abstracts are extremely short, and they are not a little versions of the paper. Instead, they are summaries of papers’ contents, so they often omit important aspects of methods and results. Moreover, the discussion in the abstract is almost nonexistent. So no matter what you are trying to get out of your read, reading just an abstract is unlikely to address this need.

Instead of traditional approach of reading the abstract first and then the full paper, I use a different method. This method allows me to learn from the paper quite effectively what I need in a relatively short amount of time. Without further ado, here is how to go about reading a research paper effectively:

Goal-oriented reading method: Start with the goal in mind  

Ask yourself:

  • Why are you reading this paper?
  • What type of information you want to extract?

If you read with clear intent, you do not get buried in the intricacies of the paper. You can focus solely on what you need from your reading. You do not spend hours reading a paper to then find yourself not being able to remember anything from it.

Having said that, on some occasions reading a paper from “a” to “z” and letting it inspire you and spark your creative thinking, it so great. I have nothing against it, you choose the way. However, if you read a paper to solve a particular problem, your problem, you want to do it as efficiently as possible.

This is a list of goals you may have when reading a research paper, along with the approach you could take to read the paper efficiently.

1. Goal: to learn about the topic -> read the introduction and the discussion

When you are new to the field, you want to learn all you can as fast as you can. Normally, you read a textbook, but in research often there is no textbook specific enough to give you a thorough introduction to the topic.

Journal papers come to rescue. To quickly catch up on the main trends in the research field, you want to master, you keyword search a few newest papers in google scholar, or any other database. Then, you read the introductions of these papers, and voila! You know enough basic information, quickly. After reading initial few introduction, you may want to read though the discussion too. This will give an additional insight into problems faced in this particular field of research. It will also highlight gaps in the knowledge currently needing solutions.  

2. Goal: to get to know whether something worked or not -> go to the results section

If you know the topic quite well already, you may be reading literature to get to know the newest additions to the body of knowledge. You already know what is established in the field and now you are only interested in what is new. The main point of your reading is to learn what has worked, and what solutions were researched but failed.

This information is usually presented in the results section. So you can go straight to the results section. If you know the methods used in your field, you will have no trouble estimating what were they. You also can go back to the methods section if you have any doubts.

3. Goal: to get to know how they got the results they got -> read methods first

You may be interested how the authors of the paper got the results they got. Maybe you have got interested in this paper because the authors had unexpected results, or the results are hard to believe in. It may be that the authors used a new method and that’s the reason to achieve different findings than you would normally expect.

Reading the methods section will highlight you all the intricacies of the procedures and methods used. This section will have details of population or samples used, equipment used, statistical methods which led to the conclusions. Methods section is a great read when you are designing your own study. You may see how other researches have been running their studies, you may find the literature on the research methods, and you will certainly learn a lot on practicalities of running a study or experiment.

4. Goal: to understand what the results mean -> go to the discussion

You already know what the results are and how the authors went about getting them (or you do not care). What the results mean, is your main interest. In this case, you will go straight to the discussion section. In this section the authors usually try to explain what their findings mean.

Also, from this section you may learn limitations and strength of this particular study. If you are an early career researcher this section can teach you so much about critical thinking when it comes to research.

For a well written paper, you can also learn how to argue persuasively, and how to structure the string of thoughts logically and easy to follow.

5. Goal: to find more literature on the topic -> go to the reference list

Reference lists of the newest and good quality research papers are the greatest source of the literature in the field. If you find one good paper in the field, you found them all. These references from this paper will lead you quickly to all the places you should visit, before you can call yourself a researcher in this particular field.

Of course each section of this paper will present you how these references are used or the context they are presented in. However, for now we are focusing on efficient reading, therefore I would advise just reading through the titles in the reference list instead. Many pdfs nowadays have hyperlinks embedded in the reference list. This allows you to quickly access many potentially important papers in your field within seconds.

6. Goal: to learn what are the rules for publishing in this particular journal

Each journal has instructions for authors, but let’s face it, many of them are poorly written, outdated or incomplete. There were numerous times when I have read the guidelines for authors only to discover that the actual papers published in this journal are written differently. Although some journals does not care about the formatting so much, for others inappropriate formatting may be a reason for a rejection.

The fastest way to see how your paper should be prepared is to find the newest issue of a journal you want to publish it. In the issue, you scan for the paper which is the most similar to yours in terms of the study design, article type, or topic. Then, you go through the headings and sections of the paper, the number of paragraphs under each section, number of words in the whole paper, how tables and figures are formatted, and referencing style. This way you quickly learn what is required.

How do you usually go about reading research papers in your field? Please leave a comment.

I dedicate this post to an awesome @simamaychoc!

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