So you’re a great researcher when it comes to your stories. If there’s a subreddit on the subject you’ve been there, right? You’ve spoken to experts, read primary resource, you’ve even done some research of your own on your houseplants and you’re ready for the next step: reading research papers.
This is huge! For many it may also seem daunting! Even in university and college undergrads aren’t super duper taught how to read papers these days (trust me I’ve marked a lot of essays…) or use them so… idk… here’s a list I’ve made based on my work in research as a postgrad.
Step One: Use Google Scholar
There are other search engines but, tbh, when I was doing my research google scholar was easier for a few reasons. 1. You never forget the address in a bamboozled state at 3am in the morning when your research has woken you up again due to stress and 2. You can set up google alerts meaning if there’s a new paper you’ve read it.
Intermediate step: For those who don’t have institutional logins for paid for journals is type in your search and then ‘.pdf’ allowing the engine to return all free pdfs on the subject.
Advanced step: Befriend a researcher and get them to download papers for you from those paid sources… haha kidding kidding (slightly). What you can do if you find a paper hidden behind a pay wall that you absolutely need is look up the authors of the paper and email them. Authors want to talk about their work (don’t we all!) and sometimes researchers can offer either a) the actual paper to you, or b) their thoughts on the field, c) other contacts and interesting information or reading material or d) all of that! Emailing researchers is great. 10/10 try it.
Step Two: Investigate the authors
On Google Scholar it tells you beside every paper how often it has been cited. This isn’t just a whimiscal feature of the search engine — generally, the more a paper has been cited the more it is viewed as pivotal, impactful, or as a seminary work. Citations mean prestige. No citations mean was this even on something real?
Intermediate step: Most authors are easily searchable if you type in their name and institution into google. This can give you a good idea of the area they work in (is it the same or different from the paper), how long they’ve been doing it, and any contact details you might want.
Advanced step: Are there any papers they’ve written after this one? Before it? Sometimes opinions change in a subject rapidly even with the same authors.
Step Three: Skim the abstract
There are a million papers in the world and nobody has time to read them all. That is a fact of life. However there is this fantastic thing called Abstracts. An abstract is a synopsis of the research, bundled into 250 words or less. Skim reading these will help you quickly find papers that are relevant and weed out the ones that aren’t (although tbh when I was doing research all this really meant is that I’d have a ‘relevant to my research’ TBR pile and a ‘omg this is weird, not on topic, but fascinating and a little bit hilarious’ TBR pile I’d read for pleasure and obvs I read way more of the latter than the former).
Step Four: Be Critical.
The thing about researchers — something sometimes misunderstood as abrasiveness — is this: researchers expect you to be critical and are critical in return. Not rude, just critical. All research is about critical thinking. It’s about looking at a piece of work, thinking it through, and using your own knowledge to come to your own opinions. A research paper is just as much about this as anything – maybe an author doesn’t want you to view it negatively but they do want you to form your own opinions. Look for flaws in methodology and thinking, form your own opinion. The thing about research is that even though the aim is to be objective simply by being human we are always subjective. The way we combat this in research is by having decade spanning discussions, disagreements, sometimes arguments, and resolutions through research papers. A research community is a fluid entity, constantly absorbing new ideas.
What does this mean for me reading this paper?? It means don’t take everything as 100% the truth no shades of grey. It never is. View the paper as somebody’s experiences, opinions, and research on a subject. Sure, some research is more trusted than others – but everyone goofs up occasionally so it’s worth being critical.