You can’t be a critical reader by reading only one research paper; and you can’t be a critical writer by only writing about one piece of research. The strongest way to review a paper is to put it into a systematic and meaningful relationship with many other pieces of research that came both before and after it. The following writing exercise is designed to help you develop this skill. It might also save you a bit of time too.
Developing a strategy for strategically reading research papers and books is also the first step to not being dominated by ‘the literature’. The following writing exercise is designed to set some parameters to your reading and writing.
You should fill in a Critical Reading Form after every research paper or book you read. This is a good way to keep track of what you have read and develop your critical reading skills. Don’t wait too long or you will forget a lot.
It’s important to write in full sentences, otherwise when you return to your notes they will make less sense. This also has the benefit of helping you to develop your own critical style of reviewing research.
It is also good to try not to write too much when reviewing a journal paper, for example, you should try to summarise it with no more than two to three sentences in each section. Being able to summarise books in the same way is also important, though more challenging due to their size and complexity. You can use the Critical Reading Form to summarise a whole book or individual chapters. If a piece of work is more important to your work then you can return to it an write more detail.
Take no more than 30mins to complete the questions; perhaps try writing to a timer. Make sure the bibliographic data is correct. If you feel you cannot fill in all the sections don’t worry, but realise that it is important to identify the gaps in your knowledge and use them to direct your reading. If you feel a piece of work is particularly important you can indicate it as such and come back to it later for a closer reading.
Critical Reading Form
1. Authors, title, date, publication title, place of publication, [vol/issue: pp. if a journal paper], type of copy I have (e.g. paper, PDF, notes)
2. What is this work about?
3. What are the main findings of this work?
4. What gap in our understanding does this work fill? (Mention specific papers/researchers) (How is the gap built; do you agree with them; are there short comings to the gap; has it filled a bigger gap than they expected?)
5. What is the research tradition/approach/method used?
6. How is this work connected to the wider research field? (Mention specific papers/researchers) This is similar to the gap but also considers the positive ways papers can be associated – i.e. are they done in the same tradition; are they from different disciplines but are interested in the same topic?
7. How is this work relevant to your assignment?
8. What are the limitations of this work? (Mention specific papers/researchers) You may have to track down a full account of the limitations of certain methods or approaches by finding those debates between researchers, which occur from time-to-time in journals.
Code: circle as appropriate
1. Very useful, return to for more detailed analysis
2. Useful and of general importance
3. Relevant but of minor importance
4. Not relevant
Critical Reading Form Tips:
1.) Create a MS Word template of the critical reading form which you can open and fill in after each paper. In addition set up a filing system on your PC to organise your notes. Remember to back up all your files, getting in the habit of synchronising your home and university computers and any external drives you have.
2.) Important papers and books you will return to and then add an extra level of detail to the form, writing a paragraph or page for each section of the form.
3.) Use the forms as examples of your writing and thinking which you can use in supervisory sessions. These forms are good ways to practise your academic style and receive feedback on it.
4.) Many of the new electronic reference management software packages, which help you build accurate bibliographies, also have sections for notes. You can copy in the content of your form to these notes sections.