Dec 2, 2022

Strategies for efficiently starting your literature research and reading journal articles

Overview: As you enter a research-based degree program, you will need to master the process of selecting, organizing, and effectively reading papers. It is a skill to thoughtfully engage with an article’s intentions, scope, assumptions, and analysis that unveils new knowledge for a community of practice.  We hope that the following post will help you as you either start exploring published literature or revisit your current practices to become more effective. 


Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy and Dr. Sapna Sarupria, Associate Professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Chemistry. Professor Sarupria studies materials using computational methods (molecular modeling, simulations, and statistical mechanics) and won one of the coveted NSF CAREER awards in 2017.  Her research involves developing sampling techniques in molecular simulations and applying them in understanding long-standing problems in condensed matter.




Anyone entering research for the first time can find it difficult to wade through the sea of journal articles. 


The first step you should take before finding journal articles is to identify what the purpose of reading the articles will be. Do you want a broad overview of the stream of research you are reading? Or do you want to analyze specifics across articles such as the methods used, the theories applied, and the analyses undertaken? Once you clarify your purpose, you can start to search for published journal articles using databases like Google Scholar, Web of Science, ArXiv, ChemRxiv etc. These resources allow researchers to comb through articles using selection factors like key words, dates of publication, and author affiliations.  They will provide you a list of possible matches and then allow you to link to the publisher of that content. 


At this point in your process, we really suggest that you commit to a citation manager to help you keep track of the articles (portable document format ‘pdf’ files) and the associated meta data for those sources and to seamlessly cite them in any common word processing program.  The citation manager Zotero is our favorite tool for organization papers. It is free, has worked seamlessly with Microsoft® Word on Dr. Kennedy’s Mac, and allows users to annotate files and to share groups of citations with collaborators.  Dr. Kennedy originally learned about this citation manager from a workshop run by Abby Boyd at Clemson University. In the workshop, Abby pointed the audience to the article entitled “Learning, teaching and writing with reference managers,” by Michael Francavilla which will be helpful in using Zotero or an alternative.  


Don’t bite off more than you can chew

If you start downloading papers without limits, you may feel productive even as you procrastinate in the harder work of reading them. Dr. Kennedy is embarrassed to say that in the past she has amassed folders of pdf files that she never read. Today, she just downloads three articles at a time.  Once those are read, she lets herself go back to her database to find more. 


Skim through those journal articles to ensure they are relevant

Before studying any paper deeply, first make sure it is relevant by skimming the paper. Read the abstract and conclusions. If the article is relevant (meets your purpose for reading articles), then read the figures and the captions.  Again, ask yourself if the article is still relevant.  If it is, then you should intently read and study the full paper. 


Because our computers can be gateways to procrastination (games, rabbit holes in Wikipedia, email), we find it best to either print a read a hard copy of the research article or to take your computer offline while reading (that is, put it in airplane mode).  We actively engage with the article by annotating phrases of interest, writing questions that pop into our minds, etc.  It usually takes us more than two reads to fully understand a paper. It’s better to read one paper well then two papers poorly. Therefore, we would advise you to take your time while reading. It may be helpful to pair reading with a treat like a cup of tea at your desk. 


Reading papers is like watching a movie. The first time we read a movie, we focus on the big picture and the general characters. When we watch it a second time, we notice more nuances such as the locations or some standout dialogues. When you watch it the nth time you start to notice even more subtle aspects of the movie and appreciate it more.  This is also true when reading a paper. It is iterative and often you will need to read the paper multiple times and each time your purpose may be different. For example, for the first time you may read the paper to simply understand the big picture – what is the paper about, what is the method used, what did they measure, and when did they conclude. The second time you may have more detailed questions – why they used the specific methods, how did they make their conclusions based on what they measured. Therefore, don’t be afraid if you must read the paper multiple times – this is normal. Also, don’t try to memorize the papers – you really want to “understand” the paper. Memorizing will never help but beginning to create a story around the papers your read will help you remember the general ideas. Imagine that you are putting a 1000-piece puzzle together and each paper is one piece. Always keep building the puzzle piece by piece – focus on how the paper you are reading fits into the knowledge you are building. You can ask questions such as – is this paper using the same methods as the other papers, if not, why not or if yes, why is this method so popular. You can also think if the conclusions are consistent or do they oppose each other. Thinking about the reason can improve your own understanding of the material. Don’t be afraid to question the conclusions of the paper – not everything published is always correct or complete. Always keep your critical thinking hat on.


Another important aspect is building a consistent habit of literature reading. We often add “reading a paper” om our task list and sometimes this can take multiple hours. When we get busy, or have deadlines, we cannot afford to spend hours reading a paper, so we stop. Instead, modify your task to be 30 mins of reading a paper. Decide ahead of the week which papers you will focus on. Then set a time for each day where you will spend 30 mins reading the paper. You will be amazed at how much you will be able to read by doing this consistently!! This approach has several advantages – 30 mins are easy to find, you build a consistent habit, reading literature becomes a part of your graduate practice (as it should be), you will learn something new every day, and literature reading become less intimidating.


Ultimately by working one by one, you can learn a good deal about the state of a field from reading a range of articles, and this is a vital skill for a scholar.


Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at  Dr. Sarupria acknowledges funding from National Science Foundation under grant number 2224643. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.