Knowledge of the different forms which academic publications can take will help you to get to grips with the secondary literature which you need to consult for your research. Making systematic notes of key passages and compiling your own summaries also form part of an effective approach to literature analysis. Managing a well-ordered filing system or making use of a professional data management program, meanwhile, should ensure that you retain permanent access to your notes in future.
Reading academic texts involves actively absorbing and processing knowledge, which in turn requires you to be able to relate any newly acquired information and insights to what you already know. Academic reading is thus a process which requires you to follow an organisational principle, namely to systematically place new and relevant knowledge (e.g. historical theories, concepts or facts) in its broader context. This can be achieved through conventional reading methods or by making use of special reading techniques. Conventional as well as special reading techniques should be continually trained and developed over the course of your degree.
Your academic reading should be guided by the questions which you ask of a text. Reading can be supplemented by note-taking strategies, such as making excerpt notes, compiling summaries or drawing visual aids (e.g. diagrams or mind maps), which can all help you to internalise new knowledge over the medium- to long-term.
Principles of Academic Reading
When you read an academic text, it is important to engage actively with what you are reading, rather than merely registering what it says. Active reading is a deliberate process which includes preparing for, reading and reviewing every text. It can be helpful to make use of visual aids (and/or their digital equivalents) during this process, such as underlining and/or highlighting key passages, adding marginal notes and symbols, and/or drawing graphs.
Academic reading should also aim for maximum efficiency, i.e. the effort which you put in and the results which you get out should be optimally balanced. Careful reading demands a lot of time, but it is necessary when engaging with a text which is both highly relevant to your research and very complex. When this is not the case, you can work your way through a text much more rapidly or even skim through it. In some circumstances, speedreading a text repeatedly can also be an efficient strategy.
Before reading a text, you should make a list of some key details: Is there any information on the author’s area(s) of expertise and academic background? When was the text published? In what form was it published: as a monograph, in an edited collection or academic journal, or as part of an academic series? What type of text is it: an article, a chapter or an introduction? These details provide us with clues as to how we should situate a text within the relevant research debates and what we can expect from it.
As you read a text, you should ask yourself which parts are relevant, and which are not. Your answer here will depend to a large extent on your own perspectives as well as on the aims of your research. If you are only interested in part of a text, the rest of the text may well be irrelevant. This assumes, however, that the relevant passages remain comprehensible when read in isolation from the rest of the study.
When reviewing a reading, it is important to check whether the questions which you posed of the text have been answered, and whether your reading aims have generally been satisfied. Compiling a short summary is a good way to ensure that you have identified a text’s key points. Finally, remember to transfer your summary and excerpt notes into the correct file or onto a data management program.
Special Reading Techniques
Developing your own reading techniques can help you to meet the diverse challenges of academic reading. You can also make use of other well-known special reading techniques. For example, the SQR3 method, which was devised by Francis P. Robinson in 1946, is described in many student handbooks:
The SQ3R Method
S = Survey
Q = Question
R = Read
R = Recap
R = Review
Thinking about the following questions while reading and reviewing a text will help you to capture its most important aspects.
Reading Objectives and Publication Details
- What do I want to learn from the text?
- Do publication date, publication form and text type match my expectations?
- Is the author’s academic profile what I anticipated?
Argument and Structure
- Research Question: What is the author attempting to investigate and/or discover?
- Structure: How is the text structured? Does this tell me anything about the development of its argument? An academic argument is usually composed of a theory, an analysis and a conclusion.
Empirical and Theoretical Foundations
- What type of sources has the author consulted (see footnotes, list of sources)?
- To which fields of research does the secondary literature consulted by the author belong (see list of literature references)?
- Which theoretical and methodological approaches have been employed (see introductory paragraphs)?
- Is the author’s argument plausible? Are there any alternative arguments?
- What are the text’s most important findings? Are they plausible?
If you want to engage closely with a text, it can sometimes be necessary to take detailed written notes; excerpt notes and summaries are particularly useful in this regard. There is simply not enough time, however, to do this for every reading. Instead, you must be able to assess whether a text corresponds to your research interests and/or contains relevant information. Even if you answer in the affirmative here, however, you still need to consider whether taking comprehensive written notes is an efficient means of realising your research objectives. If so, ensure that your notes remain permanently accessible in future by filing them away in the correct file or by uploading them onto a professional data management program.
For purposes of efficiency, a summary should list only a study’s most important points and features. These include its topic, research question, methodological approach, theoretical basis and academic context as well as its most important findings. Abstracts, which are commonly published in academic journals, provide a useful template for short summaries.
Taking excerpt notes involves transcribing selected passages from a text or source which are most relevant to your research interests. As you will read a text in relation to specific questions or issues, your excerpt notes may differ starkly from those taken by other researchers on the same text. Excerpts should be ordered by page number (of the original text), which should also be recorded for referencing purposes. The structure of the original text should be reflected in your excerpt notes. Because excerpts are removed from their original context, it is important that you ensure that their meaning is not obfuscated in the process. Quotation marks must be used to distinguish direct quotations from passages which you have paraphrased.
There are different ways of compiling excerpt notes depending on how much you already know and/or need to learn about your topic or the issues raised in a particular text. These techniques include:
Detailed Excerpt Notes
A very detailed excerpt note serves as a comprehensive summary of a reading. It is useful to compile when you know little or nothing about the issues raised in a text, but still feel that these could be very relevant to your research. You should not only make use of this form of excerpt note at an early stage in your degree, but also when needed for subsequent, more complex assignments.
Argument Excerpt Notes
An argument excerpt note reproduces the structure of a reading so that you can critically follow the course of its argument. This type of excerpt note is required when engaging in in-depth textual criticism.
If you do not deem it necessary to record detailed excerpt notes for a reading, you can simply write a short note describing its most important content. Remember to also file away your text notes in the correct file.
What Should be Included in a Detailed Excerpt Note?
1. The reading’s research question
2. Details of its structure
3. A description of the course of its argument as well as its key claims
4. Key concepts, terms and definitions
5. Details of relevant facts, occurrences, structures, persons, etc.
6. If necessary, add your own well-researched explanations of concepts, terms or facts which are not fully explained in the text
7. Any other additional comments and questions
Example of a Detailed Excerpt Note:
Christoph Auffarth: Die Ketzer : Katharer, Waldenser und andere religiöse Bewegungen [The Heretics : Cathars, Waldensians and Other Religious Movements], Munich 2005, Ch. 5: “Erlöschen oder Erwürgen : Das Ende der Katharer, die Waldenser und der Aufstieg der Bettelorden” [Expire or Strangle : The End of the Cathars, the Waldensians, and the Rise of the Mendicant Orders], pp. 84-108. Excerpt from page 84:
- Destruction of the Cathars
- The Cathars: largest medieval religious movement
- Both the Roman Catholic Church as the ruling power and Catharism as a religion in its own right with its own institutions succeeded in raising their respective profiles in their mutual conflict.
- Even though Catholicism (i.e. medieval, Roman Catholic-dominated Christianity) and Catharism could be classified as two separate Christian denominations, from the perspective of religious studies it is correct to classify them as two distinct “religions”.
- Three stages of religious separation and differentiation: 1) At first Catharism represents catch-all phrase for anti-clerical reform movements; 2) Cathars then develop their own distinct rituals; 3) Catholics und Cathars now possess their own separate doctrines – Catholicism: emphasis on lessons from purgatory; Catharism: creation myth as battle between a good God and an evil God, mirroring the struggles of good men (boni homines) against evil Catholics. Only at this final stage do missionaries from the east also play a role.
See the linked example for a somewhat less detailed excerpt note (in German).
When you work on a historical topic, you will gather together a wide variety of readings, excerpts, copies of sources, notes, etc. It is important that you can easily access these documents, not only for the duration of your ongoing research, but also when you need to refer back to them at a later stage in your studies. It is easy to lose track of all the texts which you have read over the course of your degree. Correctly filing away your notes and other documents is the most efficient way to keep track of all the work which you have done. This can help you, for example, to avoid rereading the same text unnecessarily. Maintaining a systematic filing system has become much easier now that most documents can be generated in a digital form. Digital filing systems currently come in two varieties: you can either create your own system of digital folders, or you can make use of a literature management program.
Customised Computer Filing Systems
Maintaining a personal digital filing system can make it easier for you to find your documents whenever you need to refer back to them. Establishing a digital filing system requires you to create a main folder for each project (e.g. for each (Pro)Seminar, lecture course or academic assignment). You should then create subfolders for different document types (secondary literature, sources, bibliographies, your own notes and draft writings, etc.) within each main folder. It is important to name your documents in a careful and consistent manner. After completing a project, you should transfer all associated files and (sub)folders into appropriately named master folders (e.g. “History Readings”, “Academic Assignments”, “Excerpt Notes”).
Literature Management Programs
Literature management programs help you to keep track of your research documents and can provide valuable support when you are writing an academic assignment. Although they can be difficult to use at first, they will save you time once you have grown accustomed to their individual features. They are particularly useful when it comes to capturing bibliographic data, searching for excerpt notes, adding references and compiling bibliographies.
A wide range of literature management programs is available. The University of Basel Library provides an overview of these on its website as well as details on related introductory courses. See infoclio.ch for detailed instructions in German on using the Zotero and Citavi programs. See the support pages on the Zotero and Citavi websites for instructions in English.
Literature management programs allow you to assign headwords to your notes and documents, enabling you to search for them in a more targeted manner. In contrast to a filing system, your documents can therefore also be stored within multiple groups, allowing you to access them via various pathways. By imposing their own structure, literature management programs also make it easier for you to file away your documents in the correct place.
Literature management programs also help you to create footnotes and compile bibliographies for your academic assignments by automatically importing bibliographic data from linked library catalogues every time you cite a new reference. A range of referencing styles is available, and these can easily be switched.