Analysing academic literature
Critical analysis of an academic article is a far more involved process than casual reading.
You should approach the task systematically and be prepared to cross reference between various sections of the text, as well as previous work referenced within the article.
As help for approaching the task here are some useful pointers.
Read the abstract: this forms the condensed summary of the work and will give you a rapid description of the work in its entirety. This will allow you to construct links between introductory elements, methods and results with ease.
Ask, what is the major problem being investigated? This should be clear from the abstract but if not you should progress to the introduction. If the reason for the investigation and research question isn’t clearly articulated then it will be harder for you to measure the success and relevance of the study.
Is the background to the study clearly presented in a balanced manner? As before, clarity is important when presenting the arguments in the introduction to an academic paper. It is also, however, equally important to show balance when presenting the arguments. As with any research it is highly unlikely that all experts agree, if they did then what is the need for the research. The introduction should present multiple arguments that give reason for the research to take place.
How does the researcher intend to answer the research question? By the end of the introduction you should have been made aware of the proposed methods. You should question whether, from your experience, this is an appropriate method. Care should be taken with forming an opinion too quickly. Research aims to push boundaries in techniques as well as knowledge so be prepared to keep an open mind.
Check the validity of the research method A thorough analysis of the method adopted is important when truly analysing an academic paper. As a first read you may be tempted to skip this but many fundamental problems with a piece of research can be uncovered by thorough analysis of the methods. Questions such as sample size, control groups, analytical techniques adopted etc, can help to inform you as to the overall validity of any piece of research.
Are the analytical techniques valid? In a similar manner to your analysis of the methods adopted, you should also question the relevance and applicability of any analysis. When statistical methods are used you should question the sample size, control assignment etc. Understanding this will help you greatly when you move on to the discussion when the researcher will attempt to make conclusions for their research.
Are the results consistent? When analysing the results it is important to consider what you see in them prior to considering the analysis of the researcher. This will allow you to look at the results with fresh eyes. You will then be able to read the results with a critical eye having carried out your own initial analysis.
Do the conclusions stand with the results presented? Now that you have analysed the results with an understanding of the methods used, you are now in a good place to look over the conclusions and discussion sections with an informed critical eye. You should ask yourself whether you would make the same conclusions given the data. You should also take into account your knowledge of previous work that should have been presented in the introduction. The researcher should make reference to this previous work in order to correctly position it. If the research disproves some previous work then the authors should take time to analyse why they believe this to be the case. Similarly if their work helps to clarify previous results then they should take time to consider the implications of this.
By systematically stepping through a paper in this manner you will be able to carry out three essential tasks. You should be able to explain:
- Why the research took place and what important question it was designed to answer
- How the research was carried out and whether the techniques adopted were appropriate
- Whether the results, conclusion and discussion successfully answer the research questions and whether they are valid given the methods adopted
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