Being Good Consumers of Research

September 24, 2016

If there is one common goal across graduate programs in the social sciences it is for students to become good consumers of research. Unfortunately, when it comes to reading academic articles, it seems like most of us graduate students  read the introduction, skip the methods/discussion/limitations, and go straight for the conclusion. Here are a few tips I think will help us all become better consumers of research.

  1. Read the whole article. This is hard to do when you have seven dense articles to read for your next class, but I don’t think we’ll ever be good consumers of research if we just read the introduction and conclusion. In fact, the more research I read, the less valuable I’ve found those sections. If written well, the article as a whole will give you a better sense of the strength of the analysis as well as highlight any weaknesses. It’s worth the time and struggle.
  2. Be curious. In a given article, there are plenty of rabbit holes that may be worth following. Take a few minutes while reading to look up the occasional reference, theory, instrument, or author that grabs your attention. This will help you make connections in the literature and aid in understanding. It can also be very pleasurable to look something up in Google Scholar and see what comes out of it. I’ve found some great papers and scholars this way that I likely wouldn’t have found otherwise.
  3. Take methods courses. The quality of any research paper is predicated on the quality of research methodology in answering the research question. Methods courses can be time-consuming, especially when you only have so many electives in a particular program but in my experience they have enriched my academic learning. Without at least a minimal understanding of research methodology, it is very hard to be a good consumer of research.That being said, methods courses aren’t the only place to learn these skills. Reviewing methodology and critiquing articles should be embedded in all academic courses.
  4. Read and critique journal articles that interest you. This is something I’ve stumbled into and would like to incorporate more in my blog. I get the hard copy of my favorite journals delivered to my house because I like to sit down and read them for pleasure on a lazy Saturday like today. With pencil in hand, I underline things I find compelling, questions I have, and things I want to come back to. Of course, this only works if it’s something I do because I want to do it instead of because I think I should, so I encourage you to find articles and journals that you would read for pleasure.
  5. Email the author(s) if you have a question. I have about a 33% response rate to blind emails I send out to scholars about their articles but it’s something that helps me stay engaged. I’ve found that authors are more responsive if I keep my emails short, include my question/comment up front, and mention any mutual connections I may have with the author or content. Putting a face (or in this case an email) to the name can help humanize scholars, and for a social person like me, it’s just more fun. My favorite thing at conferences is meeting scholars in person whose papers I’ve read and enjoyed.

I’m sure this list could go on, and I may have strayed somewhat from the original purpose of this blog post. Still, I hope you’ve enjoyed! Now, I’m off to critique an article I just read.

All the best,

Ozzie

(Featured image is of Gelman Library at the George Washington University by Dollaya Hemmapattawe)

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