How To Read (A Journal Article)

Stephen P. Borgatti
University of South Carolina


Here are some hints on how to read a journal article.

The objective is not so much to understand what an author says but what she means. It's like hearing a sentence in which you can identify and define every word in the sentence, but still not know what the sentence really means. If my wife says to me "You're bringing that in the house?", the surface meaning would appear to be a completely unnecessary request for confirmation that I am doing what I am doing. But the intended meaning is "It would be a mistake to bring that in the house, I don't want you to do it, and I question your sanity for wanting to do it."

Sometimes putting things in context is the key to understanding. The context of a paper is other papers or, more generally, the research tradition embodied by those papers. You ask yourself "Where does this fit in?" or "How does this contribute -- what is useful about this?"

Sometimes considering alternatives is the key. You ask yourself "In this equation, why is the author dividing by x instead of subtracting x?", or "Why this variable? What other variables could reasonably have been used instead?". To really understand what an author says, you have to make yourself conscious of what she didn't say.

Sometimes relating what is said to other things is the key. You observe that this equation in this article about diffusion is like that equation in that article about fish populations. Or you note that this notion is a generalization of that notion. Or this measure would be equal to that measure if we just change one thing and apply the measure to this kind of data.

Sometimes attempting to improve on what is said is the key. Try to correct deficiencies in what is proposed, or generalize to a larger arena. Take a model of the spread of HIV and consider how you must change it to apply to any infectious disease.

Sometimes attempting to apply what is said to a different area is the key. If I apply architectural principles to the construction of letters in the alphabet (i.e. the shape and style of each letter), what do I get? If I apply principles of good computer programming practice to the design of factory assembly lines, what do I get? If I apply the notions of evolution via natural selection to a "population" of corporations, what do I get?

A large part of understanding the meaning of a paper is understanding why something is being said. A guru may cogitate all his life on a question and then deliver an answer like "Love is a flower" or "42". Yet the result is useless without knowing the process by which he arrived at the answer. An author writes a paper like a person moves through a crowd. She weaves this way to avoid this person, that way to be closer to a companion, this way again to avoid an obstacle on the ground, and so on. When you read a paper, it is like being in a submarine piloted by somebody else. You can sense the weaving but you can't see most of the obstacles. You have to infer them. When reading a paper that is in a field you know well, you are much better at reading between the lines. You can feel when the author is avoiding sounding too functionalist or too reductionist. You can feel her trying to be consistent with a hot new current like new institutional theory. You know that a certain sentence was deliberately placed to preempt a certain criticism that was otherwise certain to surface.

Reading a paper is a very active thing. If reading papers puts you to sleep, you are doing it wrong. I try not to read academic papers in bed because they tend to wake me up. Activeness in reading can be problem: I have trouble finishing papers I am reading because they remind me of ideas I've been working on. I start playing with my old ideas in the light of what I'm reading about, and pretty soon I've forgotten about the paper. In this sense, reading papers changes you -- the process is a catalyst for intellectual growth.

By the same token, when presenting a paper to a class, your objective must be to convey what it means, not just what it says. If you are successful, people are sparked; they become happy, their brains are enriched, they become capable (for a little while at least) of understanding new things. If you are not successful, people become bored -- they feel tired, their brains are dulled, and they become temporarily incapable of understanding even simple things.