Sol G. Says, “Evaluating Research Papers Starts With Knowing How to Read Them.”

One thing which I have to admit I wasn’t prepared for in starting college was the reading.

I don’t just mean the books, which there are many of. I wasn’t prepared for the kind of serious, analytical research reading that I’d have to do. I’m in the clinical psychology program. Granted, I’m taking Algebra this semester, but we’ve tackled in other classes some serious research and scientific reading.

I sat there, looking at the research report that expressed the results of a study, and I surreptitiously looked around. Was it just me? Was I the only one for whom none of this made sense? What was this supposed to mean; was I stupid, and only now discovering it?

But we have to know how. Research papers are how the results of experiments are presented, and it’s vital that we know how to comprehend and evaluate these primary sources. Not only do they keep us up to date on what’s happening in our field, they provide the basis for much of our own research. It’s worth it to read the reports themselves, not just to rely on a newspaper’s interpretation. Many times, the actual research is both less fantastic but more interesting than the media makes it sound. Sometimes it’s less conclusive than it’s presented in the media, and sometimes there are questions raised that aren’t covered in the interest of a sensational story. So we have to go back to the source, the original research and the report that the researchers wrote about it.

The question isn’t whether you’re smart enough, even if you don’t understand all the words: reading research papers isn’t a talent, it’s a skill. It’s a skill that lots of people never learn. Here is an excellent article from Hampshire College, entitled, “How to Read A Research Paper,” which outlines the basic steps.

First, according to McNeal, skim the paper, just like you would any other text. Try to get the basic idea. What were they trying to prove?

Next, stop and check the words you don’t know. For me, this is a very, very big deal. I hate to admit how many underlined passages there are in my printouts, whole sentences that I have to stop and look up words for. It’s not so embarrassing anymore, but that’s only because I’ve gotten used to it. As long as you’re expanding your knowledge at the edges of your field, there should be concepts you don’t already know. Get used to looking these things up.

Only after making sure you understand the words do you move on to understanding the paper. It’s helpful that research papers tend to follow a fixed outline, presenting the steps in order from introduction to conclusions. Take each section one at a time- I tend to get stuck around methods, where I have to look at how each study was actually performed. It takes me a little longer.

Above all, don’t assume that just because data is presented in an approachable format, that it’s correct. Some studies are flawed, and that’s why they get repeated. So when you go looking at the research papers, remember to remain critical, and think about whether it actually proved what it set out to. If it didn’t, you’ve opened a new area of thought to consider.

Research papers get easier to read with practice, but it doesn’t come without work and I’m still looking up words. Don’t feel bad. It isn’t you. Remember- after some practice, and a few more courses, we’ll be writing, instead of reading them!

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