2.5 Reading Academic Writing
Nancy Ami; Natalie Boldt; Sara Humphreys; Jemma Llewellyn; and Erin Kelly
As undergraduate students (or whoever you may be, but we assume you are an undergraduate student), you will be asked to read different types of academic writing. We’re sure you’re not surprised by this assertion. What might surprise you is that reading academic writing doesn’t have to be a miserable chore, if you know how to approach the task. Academic reading can take a number of different forms, but you will most likely be reading peer-reviewed articles to collect ideas and opinions that support the paper you’re writing. Here’s another tidbit you might not have known: these are called academic sources.
What Am I Looking For When Reading Academic Sources?
Put another way, what are the reader’s expectations? Remember when we discussed academic writing as an umbrella (or MASSIVE) genre in Section 2.3 Academic Writing as a Genre? In this section we will predominantly discuss the structure of primary and secondary sources that you will need to read as an undergraduate student (for more explanation of sources, head to chapter four) and cover the conventions that you will need to be mindful of when reading.
Understanding these conventions will allow you to make better choices when drafting and revising your own academic writing assignments, which are apprentice versions of published academic writing. Yes, that’s right: as an undergraduate student, you are a type of apprentice, learning the ropes. The great thing is that when you learn how to navigate academic writing, you’ll find these techniques (reading critically, arguing a point, etc.) are commonplace in the kind of reading and writing you’ll be doing in your professional life.
Let’s briefly discuss peer-reviewed journals, which contain the peer-reviewed articles you will be reading a lot of in any discipline you major or minor in. Every discipline (music, biology, chemistry) has its own journals in which current research is published. They are regarded as reliable sources of information because the articles are peer reviewed, and most libraries, including those at the University of Victoria, explain what that means.
For many of you, you are approaching peer reviewed articles cold, and by that, we mean you have literally no expectations of a peer-reviewed article, except maybe some anxiety that such an article will be difficult to read. However, once you understand the conventions of peer- reviewed articles, we think you’ll feel better about reading them.
The content of peer-reviewed articles is vast and varied, but the purpose is generally the same. Academic writers often write with the purpose of conveying information to their peers (other academics in the same field) and persuading these readers that this information has value. The specifics of the argument might vary – for example, a chemist might be arguing that her lab team’s experiment suggests a new concept is true while an art historian might be arguing that the patron who paid for a sculpture had an important influence on its contents. Those outside of a field could have a bit of trouble telling what’s being argued. But the basic expectation is always present: the ideas offered in this piece of writing are true, accurate, and to be taken seriously.
To persuade their readers, academic writers put a lot of emphasis on evidence in the form of facts, statistics, and discoveries. Much of this evidence derives from the writer’s research (which can take a range of forms, from a lab experiment to a mathematical proof to quotes derived from an archival document). You can expect to find careful analysis and explanation of the evidence being presented. Academic writers assume their readers place enormous value on research and information. (By the way, in chapter three, you’ll see that this way of persuading readers is an example of one of the rhetorical appeals, the appeal to logos.)
Peer-reviewed articles often include an acknowledgement of limitations to the argument, perhaps even an overview of possible shortcomings. Some academic writers even recognize that not all readers will agree with their points by fairly representing and respectfully engaging with those who have or are likely to oppose their arguments. In academic writing, it’s not a weakness to admit you might not have the last word on a particular topic. In fact, open-mindedness makes you seem more reasonable. This is an aspect of academic writing you might want to include in your own essays.
Published academic writing in different fields can vary greatly in length and form. Many scientists share their research mostly in academic journal articles, and these articles are often less than ten pages long. In contrast, while historians write journal articles too, these essays might be up to forty pages long. As well, many historians share their research in books that are two or three hundred pages in length. But don’t let these differences confuse you – there are still common organizational features across most examples of academic writing, such as sophisticated arguments and high-quality evidence.
Most academic arguments make explicit their key point somewhere near the opening (first couple of pages). Readers expect to see this central idea early on and then presume the rest of the essay will develop and support that idea. You might have learned this practice by being taught that an essay needs a thesis statement and that the thesis statement should always appear in the first paragraph of an essay. In professional academic writing, you might not find a simple thesis statement, and the declaration of an article’s main point might show up in an opening section rather than an initial paragraph – but the key idea will almost always be stated explicitly before the article, essay, or book gets very far along.
Also relatively near the beginning, you will usually see a summary and explanation of other relevant, published academic work on related topics. This is where authors situate their argument with what’s going on in the field at that time. You are likely to even see the writer suggesting how that existing work is being responded to with their new research. Sometimes this section of an academic essay is called a ‘literature review.’ You might have to write a literature review in your own papers or even as a standalone assignment.
Academic writers also tend to make explicit their methodology – their approach to gathering and building an argument out of their research. In a science article, this will be very explicit – you’re likely to see a section labeled Methodology that talks about exactly how an experiment was set up and carried out. In other fields, the discussion of methodology might be more abstract, featuring definitions of key terms and indications of what foundational theories or approaches are being relied upon.
The conclusion or last section of a piece of academic writing is vital to read. It might do a lot more than summarize main points – this is the place to look for a discussion of larger implications or significance, as well as perhaps a sketch of future directions for research. It’s generally written for a non-specialist audience, unlike the data or methodology section, which is usually for specialists in the field.
So there you have it, these are the readerly expectations that you should have when you read peer-reviewed articles. But you will be doing more than reading in your classes: you’ll be writing.