Strategies for Reading Research Papers

Return to Reading and Note-making

*Using guiding questions to assist in reading a research paper*How to read research papers*Underlying assumptions*The Argument *Good and bad arguments*Some common logical fallacies

Using guiding questions to assist in reading a research paper

Here are some general questions to ask when analyzing various kinds of research papers:

Introduction

  • What is the overall purpose of the research?
  • How does the research fit into the context of its field? E.g. Is it attempting to settle a controversy? Show the validity of a new technique? Open up a new field of inquiry?
  • Do you agree with the author’s rationale for studying the question in this way?

Methods

  • Were the measurements appropriate for the questions the researcher was approaching? (Often, researchers need to use ‘indicators’ because they cannot measure something directly – e.g. using babies’ birth weight to indicate nutritional status.)
  • Were the measures in this research clearly related to the variables in which the researchers (or you) were interested?
  • If human subjects were studied, do they fairly represent the populations under study?

Results

  • What is the major finding?
  • Were enough of the data presented so that you can judge for yourself how the experiment turned out?
  • Did you see patterns or trends in the data that the author did not mention? Were there problems that were not addressed?

Discussion

  • Do you agree with the conclusions drawn from the data?
  • Are these conclusions over-generalized or appropriately careful?
  • Are there other factors that could have influenced, or accounted for, the results?
  • What further experiments would you think of, to continue the research or to answer remaining questions?

Source: Hampshire College.

Questions to ask when CRITICALLY reading a research a paper:

  1. What is the research paradigm the author is using e.g. psychological experimentation, proving a theorem? If the paper is part of a well-established field, describe the field and its current state.
  2. What is the problem area with which the paper is concerned?
  3. What is the author’s thesis, i.e., of what is s/he trying to persuade you? (Now, summarize the author’s thesis).
  4. Does the author describe other work in the field? If so, does this research differ from other work in the field?
  5. Does the paper succeed at convincing you of the author’s argument?
  6. Some papers implicitly or explicitly provide new ways of thinking or doing. Does the paper generate new ideas?
  7. Does the author indicate how the work should be followed up?

Adapted from Georgia Tech College of Computing.

How to read research papers

It is NOT like reading a textbook.

  • Information is too dense for one simple reading
  • Special structure allows reader to find desired section more easily
  • May only need specific aspect of the article
  • Understanding one part often requires forward or backward reference to another part

Therefore…Be prepared to read 2-4 times!

Rules for efficient paper reading

  1. Read sections in an order which facilitates speed and comprehension.
  2. Question yourself as you read to keep the process active and critical.

See Using Guiding Questions to Assist in Reading a Research Paper in the Critical Reading for Graduate Students module.

The following order is recommended for faster and more effective paper reading.

  1. ABSTRACT–It‘s very important to read the Abstract closely to determine whether you need to read the whole paper. Ask yourself: What specific results are mentioned? Are the findings relevant to my own research questions?

Reading strategy: read closely to determine connection to your research questions

  1. DISCUSSION–The Discussion (also known as ‘analysis’ or ‘conclusions’) gives important results and reasons for conclusions. This section gives more DETAIL on the specific results and, therefore, helps you determine whether this paper is relevant to your research. Ask yourself: Are these results useful? Do you agree with the logic of the author’s conclusions?

Reading Strategy: speed read 1st, then read for details, might need to read several times

  1. INTRODUCTION–The Introduction explains the motivation and importance of the research. It gives prior research and what the accepted understanding in the field is. Ask yourself: Do you understand the background information? Do you need to look up references?

Reading Strategy: skim

  1. RESULTS–The Results provides raw data you might need for your own research. Figures and tables provide data in a condensed, easy to view way. Understanding Figures is very important to understand the paper. Ask yourself: Do you know what the axes mean? What units are used? Do the curves make sense?

Reading Strategy: review Figures closely

  1. METHODS–The Methods is often the hardest section to read as it contains specialized techniques. A well written Methods section allows you to understand how you could replicate the experiment, if you wanted to.

Reading Strategy: skim to pick out the basic method first. If the method is important to your research, then read again for more detail.

Source: Purdue University Libraries tutorials.

Critical Reading: Underlying assumptions

Exercise: Analyze the paragraph below for the author‘s underlying assumptions. There are both explicit and implicit messages.

“AIDS is a serious epidemic. This dreaded disease has moved from drug users and homosexuals to promiscuous heterosexuals. Clearly, God is showing his wrath for those who violate his moral laws.”

Explicit assumptions:

 1.

2.

 

Implicit assumptions:

1.

2.

3.

4.

 

What are some of your underlying assumptions which will colour your reading and writing?

Source: Makau, J. (1990). Reasoning and communication: Thinking critically about arguments. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont CA. p. 30-32.

The Argument

 Exercise

For each passage below, determine whether it does or does not contain an argument. (Hint: Ask “What is the writer/speaker trying to justify?” This will help you see if there is an argument). Give reasons for your judgment. If there is a conclusion, underline it.

Passage 1

 I don‘t care what you say. I really think that Yvette is in love with John. Why? Because she always wants to talk about him. She even blushes when you ask her about him.

Passage 2

 Soccer is an active game which is very popular around the world. The game requires terrific eye-foot coordination, speed, and endurance.

Passage 3

 Any diet poses some problems. Here‘s why. If the diet doesn‘t work, that is a problem. If the diet does work, then the dieter‘s metabolism is altered. An altered metabolism as a result of dieting means a person will need less food. Needing less food, the person will gain weight more easily. Therefore, after successful dieting a person will gain weight more easily.

 

ANSWER KEY

Passage 1

Answer: Argument with 2 reasons.

Passage 2

Answer: No argument. Neither sentence is offered as a reason or as evidence for the other. Nor is there any evidence that someone is trying to justify or prove any claim about soccer or anything else.

Passage 3

Answer: Argument is that all diets pose problems. Conclusion is at the beginning and at the end. ‘Therefore’ is an indicator word.

 

Adapted from: Govier, T. (1992). A practical study of argument. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

 

The argument: Indicator words

 Common Premise Indicators

Indicator Meaning
Since On the grounds that
Because For the reason(s) that
For As indicated by
Follows from May be inferred by
As shown by May be derived from
Given that May be deduced from

 Common Conclusion Indicators

 

 Indicator Meaning
Therefore For all these reasons we can see that
Thus On these grounds it is clear that
So Consequently
Hence Proves that
Then Shows that
It follows that Indicates that
In conclusion We can conclude that
Accordingly Demonstrates that

Source: Govier, T. (1992). A practical study of argument. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. pp. 4-5

Hints about some indicator words

  1. ‘Hence’, ‘thus’, ‘consequently’, ‘so’, ‘therefore’ as conclusion indicators = some (maybe all) of the reasons for that conclusion appeared somewhere earlier in the text.
  2. ‘Since’, ‘as’, ‘because‘ as premise indicators = the conclusion being supported usually is stated in another clause of the very same sentence! e.g. Since nuclear plants have a life expectancy of under 40 years, they themselves may become the hardest waste disposal problem of all.
  3. ‘And’ as Conjunction: preceded by a conclusion indicator word (e.g. and therefore) ≠ an indicator word as Premise: e.g. He is fat and he has diabetes. Therefore, he should go on a diet. = an indicator word

 

Exercise

Place each of the following phrases in one of the three columns below, according to whether it is a premise/reason indicator or a conclusion indicator. Assume that the word(s) appear before the statement. If a word has other uses in addition to an indicator, e.g. ‘since,’ assume for the purpose of this exercise that it‘s an indicator.

Phrase Reason (premise) Conclusion Neither
1.   Implies that
2.   Especially
3.   I think that
4.   Being that
5.   Seeing that
6.   Nevertheless
7.   May be deduced from
8.   Not
9.   Suggests very strongly
10. In the first place

 

Thomas, S. (1981). Practical reasoning in natural language. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

 

The argument: Degrees of Support

EXERCISE:Look at the examples below and analyse their degree to support.

  1. All people are mortal. George W. Bush is a person.
    Conclusion: George W. Bush is mortal.
  2. Of 18 patients who previously had recurrences of malaria, after treatment with Drug X, only 2 (11%) had a recurrence. In contrast, in 11 control subjects not treated with Drug X (but with a placebo), 83% had recurrences. Numerous earlier studies had shown that Drug X inactivates the malaria virus.
    Conclusion: Treatment of malaria by Drug X should be considered.
  3. Some roses are red. Some violets are blue.
    Conclusion: Kang still loves Sue.
  4. Saddam Hussein‘s secret service police tortured Iraqi citizens. It is unlikely that these police would have engaged in torture without his consent or direction. Hussein had a long record of sadistic activities.
    Conclusion: Saddam Hussein was guilty of torturing his own people.
  5. Ahmed has two suitcases
    Conclusion: Ahmed has some luggage.
  6. The construction of the new Queen‘s Centre is now $41 million over the original budget.
    Conclusion: The administrators who are overseeing this facility are incompetent.

 

Answer key

  1. deductively
  2. strong
  3. nil
  4. moderate
  5. deductively valid
  6. weak

Adapted from: Thomas, S. (1981). Practical reasoning in natural language. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. 98-111.

Good and bad arguments

Exercise

Read the following 2 dialogues. Compare and contrast them for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ arguments.

Dialogue 1

Peter: Mountain climbing is a terrific sport. It gives people a chance to get out in beautiful country; it gives them good exercise; it builds really strong arm and leg muscles, and it requires great teamwork.

Jasmine: A great sport? Isn’t it kind of dangerous?

Peter: More than any other sport I know it builds both health and teamwork. Jasmine: I don‘t know. I’ve heard about a lot of accidents mountain climbing.

Peter: Furthermore, you aren’t going to find a better sport for aerobic strength and arm and leg muscle development.

Jasmine: Mountain climbing is really risky. I just can‘t see the point. And besides, why should the public have to pay when these mountain climbers get into trouble? The forest rangers are in there with helicopters and it all costs taxpayers’ money.

Peter: We’re going out next weekend and I was going to ask you to come. But I guess I won‘t now. Obviously, you’re not the type.

Your analysis:

Analysis of a bad argument

They ignore each other’s arguments to the point where they seem about to lapse into a quarrel. Peter asserts 4 reasons why he thinks mountain climbing is terrific.

Jasmine doesn’t agree with Peter‘s claims. She states another view based on another argument: mountain climbing is not a good sport because it’s dangerous. She ignores Peter’s argument totally. She reacts as if Peter didn’t use any premises (when he uses 4) and she disagrees solely based on his conclusion, i.e., instead of considering his reasons and how they might support her own. Peter then responds in kind and ignores Jasmine‘s arguments.

Dialogue 2

Peter: Mountain climbing is a terrific sport. It gives people a chance to get out in beautiful country; it gives them good exercise; it builds really strong arm and leg muscles, and it requires great teamwork.

Jasmine: I doubt that mountain climbing is better for developing your muscles better than tennis or soccer. Is it better for developing teamwork than baseball or basketball? I can see why mountain climbing attracts people, in a way, but I think it‘s too risky to be a good sport to take up.

Peter: I‘m not saying it‘s the only way to develop muscles and good teamwork. You could do that through sports, of course. But mountain climbing is such a challenge and it‘s so much fun and gives you such a sense of achievement. When you put these together with the good exercise and teamwork, you’ve really got something. As for risk, why do you think mountain climbing is so risky?

Jasmine: It‘s those stories you see in the paper about how the forest rangers have to go out and use helicopters to rescue these mountain climbers who go out on ledges and so on.

Your analysis:

Analysis of a good argument

Jasmine considers Peter‘s argument and asks how several of his premises are supposed to support his conclusion. She mentions her own point of view.

Peter responds to her argument by asking her why she thinks it’s risky. He is, in effect, questioning her premise (politely) and asking for a sub-argument.

Whether they agree to each other’s arguments in the end, we can see that much more info was exchanged and the situation is less likely to degenerate into a quarrel, i.e., a fight rather than a reasoned attempt to justify one‘s point of view.

Source: Govier, T. (1992). A Practical study of argument. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

Some common logical fallacies

 Hasty generalization

Making assumptions about a whole group or range of cases based on a sample that is inadequate (usually because it is atypical or just too small). Stereotypes about people are a common example of the principle underlying hasty generalization.

Missing the point

The premises of an argument do support a particular conclusion, but not the conclusion that the arguer actually draws.

Weak analogy

Many arguments rely on an analogy between two or more objects, ideas, or situations. If the two things that are being compared aren’t really alike in the relevant respects, the analogy is a weak one, and the argument that relies on it commits the fallacy of weak analogy.

Appeal to authority

Often we add strength to our arguments by referring to respected sources or authorities and explaining their positions on the issues we’re discussing. If, however, we try to get readers to agree with us simply by impressing them with a famous name or by appealing to a supposed authority who really isn’t much of an expert, we commit the fallacy of appeal to authority.

Straw man

One way of making our own arguments stronger is to anticipate and respond in advance to the arguments that an opponent might make. In this fallacy, the arguer sets up a wimpy version of the opponent’s position and tries to score points by knocking it down. But just as being able to knock down a straw man, isn’t impressive, defeating a watered-down version of your opponents’ argument isn’t impressive either.

Red herring

Partway through an argument, the arguer raises a side issue that distracts the audience from what’s really at stake. Often, the arguer never returns to the original issue.

False dichotomy (either/no)

In false dichotomy, the arguer sets up the situation so it looks like there are only two choices. The arguer then eliminates one of the choices, so it seems that we are left with only one option: the one the arguer wanted us to pick in the first place. But often there are really many different options, not just two—and if we thought about them all, we might not be so quick to pick the one the arguer recommends!

Begging the question (e.g. circular reasoning)

A complicated fallacy; it comes in several forms and can be hard to detect. An argument that begs the question asks the reader to accept the conclusion without providing real evidence; the argument either relies on a premise that says the same thing as the conclusion (i.e. “being circular” or “circular reasoning”), or simply ignores an important (but questionable) assumption that the argument rests on.

For examples and tips to help avoid these fallacies, see the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s resources. For practice spotting fallacies, see their sample argument.

 

Source: “Fallacies” at UNC