Understanding Your Sources



Understanding Your Sources

When researching, read through your sources twice: once to understand the author’s purpose and argument, and a second time to evaluate the argument.

Learning Objectives

Outline the process for reading an academic source

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Typically, you will need to read sources twice to get a complete picture of what they say and how you can use them.
  • Your first reading should focus on understanding the source’s argument. Start by looking for the topic and the thesis, then consider the author ‘s stated purpose and the evidence he or she uses to support the argument.
  • Your second reading should focus on whether you agree or disagree with the source, and whether you have any commentary that you would like to make about the author’s argument.
  • Reading scientific articles requires a different strategy than reading a newspaper article or textbook: you should skim the text, compare the hypothesis to the conclusion, identify key terms and visual aids, and then read the article closely for content.
  • Take notes as you read to understand your sources and the questions they raise.
  • While reading critically, ask yourself questions to better understand the content, the author’s position, and the value of the source.

Key Terms

  • thesis: A statement supported by arguments.
  • audience: The readership of a book or other written publication.
  • purpose: An object to be reached; a target; an aim; a goal.

Reading Your Sources

Once you’ve found sources to help your research, you must read each source carefully. To develop a sufficient understanding of the source, you will typically need to read it twice before including it in your essay. The first time should be devoted to understanding the argument the source is making. The second reading should focus on how the argument is made. At this stage, you should also determine whether you agree or disagree with the argument that the source is making, and whether it would support the argument you will make in your paper.

The First Reading

Start by looking for the topic and the thesis. What is the author’s stated purpose? What kind of evidence does he or she use to support the argument? What is the author saying? What is her purpose? The author could be trying to explain, inform, anger, persuade, amuse, motivate, sadden, ridicule, attack, or defend. Once you understand the argument and purpose, you can begin to evaluate the argument.

The Second Reading

This is the time to think about whether you agree or disagree with the source, and whether you have any commentary that you would like to make about the author’s argument. During your second reading you should consider the writer’s reputation and their intended audience. Determine whether you find the author credible or not. If you do, and if the author’s purpose and argument support your own, you can begin incorporating the source into your own writing. If you find the author credible but disagree with his purpose, it can still be valuable to consider the source in your own writing so that you can anticipate and acknowledge counterarguments later in your essay.

Finally, remember to pay attention to quotation marks as you read. It’s important to note whether the author of a text is writing, or if they are quoting someone else. Quotation marks are a helpful tool that authors use to help readers in distinguishing their voice from those of others. By paying attention to quotations and other cited material, you may also gain leads on other sources and authors you can incorporate in your paper.

Reading Scientific Articles

Do not read a scientific article as though you’re reading a textbook. Unlike academic articles, science textbooks organize information in chronological order and highlight important terms, definitions, and conclusions with bold text and graphics. Academic articles require a more proactive reading strategy.

Follow these four steps for reading scientific articles:

1. Before you read the entire article, skim it quickly for an overview of its structure.

2. Return to the beginning for a selective reading. Read the abstract, which will summarize the article. Read the beginning and end of the introduction, which will present the main points and explain their importance. Skim the conclusion to see how the results correspond to the hypothesis. As you read, look for keywords that signal important information, such as the following: surprising, unexpected, in contrast with previous work, we hypothesize that, we propose, we introduce, we develop, the data suggest.

3. Skim the entire article for common keywords and also visual aids (such as diagrams and charts), which are good indicators of important information.

4. At this point, you can read the article closely, attempting to draw inferences beyond what it states explicitly. As you read, take notes in a separate notebook, or in a computer document.

Questions for Guided Reading

If you want to make sure you catch the most important features of the article, ask pointed questions while you read. The following questions are essential to a thorough summary of a scientific article:

  1. What is the topic of the article?
  2. How is the problem, question, or issue defined?
  3. What is the purpose of the research? What question, problem, or issue did the article address in relation to the topic?
  4. Are any assumptions unusual or questionable?
  5. Why is the question, problem, or issue important? What situation exists that motivated the research?
  6. What experimental design is used? What methods are used?
  7. What are the results? How were they interpreted? What did the researcher conclude?
  8. Why is the article valuable or noteworthy? Does it answer a previously unanswered question, or contradict earlier research? Does it introduces a new method or technique? Does it test an old conclusion in a new way? Does it prove an old assumption false?

Taking Notes

No matter what you are reading, the following strategies are effective:

  • Highlight important passages.
  • Draw lines between the highlighted parts and briefly describe their connection.
  • Map the relationships between key concepts.
  • Make a list of keywords.
  • Look for words that signal an important piece of information.
  • Look for familiar concepts applied to new populations or situations.
  • Try to find evidence that might contradict something that was established in your class.
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Think about it…: Once you have scanned a source to know what it is about, reread it while thinking critically about its argument.