Skills Earth Sciences

Diving in: Reading literature

Learning outcomes

At the end of this chapter you will be able to:

  • Quickly and efficiently read an academic article and gather useful information for your own research


During your studies you will often need to make your way through large amounts of academic papers. This could be for compiling a database, providing background knowledge for a research topic, or compiling a literature review. You don’t need to read every paper you come across front to back, since articles often contain much more information than you might need, and there are only so many hours in the day we can spend reading papers.

Most journals use a similar structure: After the abstract follows an Introduction, Methodology, Results, Discussion and Conclusion. For more detail on what can be found in these sections please see the Scientific writing module. A common mistake made when first exploring scientific literature is reading an article like a textbook. You shouldn’t plough through a paper from beginning to end without pause. In fact, the most efficient ways of reading scientific articles are often not in chronological order at all.

One simple yet efficient method for reading a paper is the Three Pass Approach (see: How to read a paper). The first pass gives you a general idea of the article, the second pass gives you a better understanding of the content of the article, but not in too much detail, and the third pass is for in-depth understanding. After each pass you can evaluate whether it is necessary to continue to the next, and whether or not the article is relevant for your own work. Of course, if you’re only reading a paper to compare e.g. experimental techniques, then focus on those. This guide is to help you read articles when you aren’t focussed on one particular aspect of research.