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Study guide series: Reading techniques for academic literature

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Oliver Back
5 min read

Skim reading, or Close reading? Why use either?

Skim reading and close reading are both very useful reading styles when it comes to screening academic text, and critically appraising the full article.

Skim reading is a strategic and selective approach to reading only the main points in an article and involves purposefully avoiding sections that will get the reader stuck into fine details or processes involved in coming to the main conclusions. Skim reading is often used during the screening process, but is also used before close-reading text, to gain a better perspective of the main points imparted in the article.

Skim reading
Pro: Con:
Saves time Can be easy to miss important information
Quickly draws out main points and themes of the article Can leave you with limited knowledge of the detail behind the study and the wider field
Helps you decide if the paper is worth spending more time on Difficult to understand the impact the paper makes in its field

Close reading is a more involved and critical approach to reading academic texts. Close reading involves extracting the main conclusions of the paper, the finer details, the purpose of the study, what its limitations are, where it sits in the wider body of research, and how it might influence future work. This process aims to provide the reader with a well-rounded and nuanced understanding of the text in question.

Close reading
Pro: Con:
Greater knowledge of the paper and field in general Can take up hours of time
Easier to recall facts Readers can get bogged down in details
Critical review helps you to strengthen arguments in your writing May waste time on irrelevant or unhelpful texts
Greater knowledge of the contribution the study makes  


Why Skim read?

Skim reading is often used to gain a surface level understanding of a paper during the screening process, or to get a quick recap of a paper read some time ago. It is a useful skill that can help save time when first approaching literature or revisiting it. Skim reading is usually performed by focusing on the results and conclusion, where the reader will scan through the article text, spending more time and attention on important sections such as data and key findings.

This can lead to a good surface level understanding that is enough to help the reader make a decision about how useful the article is to their own work, but shouldn’t be a substitute for reading the full text if the reader deems it useful after skim reading. Allocating time to read the full article  is vital to the researcher’s understanding of the subject and wider literature.

Why Close read?

Close reading an article by taking a deep dive and fully reading the text is usually deployed for more important papers that stand out during the literature screening process, or those that are recommended by lecturers in their reading lists. Reading the entire paper is useful in these cases, as it is more important to extract the nuance alongside the pertinent points the authors are making. Critically reading a paper can help the reader understand how much of the surrounding literature the author has considered and can be a great indicator of how strong their arguments and assertions are.

Scholarcy makes both skimming and close reading faster, and more accurate. Reading the Synopsis, Highlights, and Summary in the Scholarcy Flashcard will give the reader a solid high-level understanding of the paper. The Comparative Analysis section can then be read to further the reader’s knowledge about how the author has considered previous work, and whether they have replicated methods, or confirmed or moved away from earlier findings.

How to skim read with Scholarcy:

The Synopsis is a good place, as it contains a narrative overview of the article. It will also extract an image to give the reader more context.

Scholarcy Highlights are a great addition to the Synopsis, as the section extracts a number of key points that accurately convey the main facts and findings in the paper.

The Summary is a good way to build on this knowledge. Having each section of the paper broken down into its key take-aways is a good way to get a well-rounded understanding of the paper, and what each section is trying to communicate to the reader.

These sections of the Flashcard give the reader a great insight into what the author was hoping to demonstrate, but may lack details that help them understand the article’s relevance to the wider field of research. This is where the Comparative Analysis section becomes useful. Any methods replicated or adapted from previous studies will be featured here. Differences in approaches will also be highlighted, so the reader can make an informed decision about the nature and reliability of this particular study. Results will also be discussed here. If the author has confirmed, or questioned prior results, the reader will gain a valuable insight into how the study builds on or differs from earlier studies.

How Scholarcy helps you to close read academic literature:

Before reading the entire paper, you should have screened the article to ensure it is worth reading in full. As a minimum this involves reading the abstract, but also reading the sections of the Scholarcy Flashcard discussed above can give a quick, but well-rounded overview of the paper along with the main arguments.

Many people will also want to skim read the entire paper before committing to a detailed reading. This will help them tackle the full text with prior knowledge of the author’s main assertions so they can anticipate points coming up as they critically evaluate its contents.

Being able to anticipate the main points makes it easier to focus on the fine details, as well as improving the key fact recall at a later date.

A feature that helps a lot of people critically read the paper in full as well as helping them to pick up on the nuance of the author’s writing, is Scholarcy Spotlight. Using this feature, readers can scroll through the full paper whilst being guided to the exact location where a Key concept, Important point, or Contribution has been made. This helps the reader to identify and absorb key sections along with the surrounding context to fully understand the point the author was trying to make. The Spotlight feature makes critically reviewing a paper more manageable and reading the paper from start to finish faster.

Plain language summary

Scholarcy’s Enhanced Summary is often used by readers critically reviewing literature, as the reading level can be adjusted to suit their needs. This feature can improve the reader’s understanding of a paper, whilst also saving them time.

The techniques described in this study guide can be used to more effectively skim read, and close read academic texts. They are useful for screening papers to establish relevance, gaining a quick understanding of related papers, or becoming a subject matter expert.

Scholarcy supports and speeds up both styles of reading, allowing the reader to gain a better insight into the literature, and have more time left over to review additional articles, or to use for their writing.