Reading for research

Reading is an important part of studying and an essential part of the research process. Feeling overwhelmed by your reading list? Try the following approach and learn which strategies and techniques you can use. Discover the way that works best for you and make reading more effective and enjoyable.

image: reading for research
Source: ClkerFreeVectorImages. (2014). A man carefully reading a book

There you are with a pile of publications. How do you tackle it as efficiently as possible? The good news is: you don’t have to read all of them from the beginning until the end!
Just start by following the steps mentioned below:

  1. Decide how much time you have
  2. Before reading information scan it
  3. Zoom in on the useful information
  4. Ask yourself questions
  5. Take notes

Do you have any doubts about your selected publications, go to Evaluating search results

1. Decide how much time you have

Depending on the time period of the project you are working on, decide how much time is available for reading, understanding and analysing the literature. Don’t underestimate the time you need and be realistic about how much you can read in the time available.

2. Before reading information scan it

What Why How to select and prioritize
Title
Get a first broad sense of the subject and the relevance
A proper title (incl. subtitle) is not too long and indicates where the book is about.
Scan the title for relevant keywords that you have determined in advance.
This can help to prioritize the titles on your reading list.
Tip: a title does not always cover the content of a book!
Author and author affiliation
Recognise the author based on reputation and recognition (authority)
To determine the authority of an author in a certain field try to answer these questions:
Do I know the author? Is she/he an authority, a recognised author in the field?
Or if you don’t now :
Did you find several articles about the same topic written by this author? In that case he/she probably is an expert on this topic.
Look also at the affiliation. The affiliation gives you additional information, for instance does the author work at a (in the field) well-known university or institute.
Cover and flap

Information and reviews on the back flap give you an indication about the appreciation of the book
The main topic of the book should be about your research topic.
Determine if the review on the back flap contributes to the understanding of the topic.
Check if it’s recommended by others.
Table of contents

Overview of the topics of the book.
The structure of the book helps understanding and selecting what to read
A book will give you a complete overview of a subject.
By scanning the table of contents (skeleton of a book) you will get an idea of the content and make a selection of relevant chapters for your subject.
Summary/abstract

Look at the relationship and reliance to your own research
An abstract contains the essence of the research described.
Every part of the book is reflected. Check the conclusions also. On this basis decide if the source is useful for you.
The context of the way the topic is treated must be (more or less) similar to the context of your research topic. Are the aspects of the topic mostly the same as in your research topic?
Keywords

Define the main topics of the book
Keywords describe the main topics of a publication.
Are the keywords close and relevant to your research topic?
Introduction/preface

Shows what to expect
An introduction is intended to convey the writer’s idea’s and the background of his research to the reader. Does this information match your expectations?
Conclusion

Define a relationship to your own research
Read the conclusions at the end of each chapter and the final conclusion of the book.
In the conclusions you will find the answer to the research question of the book. Is this answer relevant for your topic?
Chapters/paragraphs

How can you use this information in your own research?
Look at the titles of chapters and paragraphs. Read the beginning and the end (conclusions) of each chapter to get a detailed picture of the contents and completeness of the book.
Is the book suitable to build on your own research?
Reference list

Check for new insights and/or similarities with your selection
By checking out the literature references you are able to see on which insights the book is based. Do you recognise any references: author names, journals etc.?
The reference list can help you find new views and insights for your own research.
Date

Define the relevance based on actuality of your topic
Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well? Check the publication dates!
Take notes!

You need to be able to find the book again, for example when you need it for citations. So write down reference information.
Annotate your selection. What is interesting, how it can contribute to your work etc. You need to be able to find the publication again, for example when you need it for citations. So write down reference information.
For more information about storing, go to: https://tulib.tudelft.nl/managing-your-information/reference-management/
For more information about referencing, go to: https://tulib.tudelft.nl/writing-publishing/how-to-cite/
What Why How to select and prioritize
Title

Get a first broad sense of the subject and the relevance
A proper title (incl. subtitle) is not too long and indicates where the article is about.
Scan the title for relevant keywords that you have determined in advance.
This can help to prioritize the titles on your reading list
Tip: a title does not always cover the content of an article!
Author and affiliation

Recognise the author based on reputation and recognition (authority)
To determine the authority of an author in a certain field try to answer these questions:
Do I know the author? Is she/he an authority, a recognized author in the field?
Or if you don’t now :
Did you find several articles about the same topic written by this author? In that case he/she probably is an expert on this topic.
Look also at the affiliation. The affiliation gives you additional information, for instance does the author work at a (in the field) well-known university or institute.
Which journals/proceedings

Authority: importance of the journal/proceedings in the field
It is important to know in which journal or proceedings an article is published. Each research area has its most important (trusted) journals or proceedings.
Do you know about the reputation of the journal or the conference in your field?
Summary/abstract

Look at the relationship and reliance to your own research
An abstract contains the essence of the research described.
Every part of the publication is reflected. Check the conclusions also. On this basis decide if the source is useful for you.
The context of the way the topic is treated must be (more or less) similar to the context of your research topic. Are the aspects of the topic mostly the same as in your research topic?
Keywords

Define the main topics of the publication
Keywords describe the main topics of a publication.
Are the keywords close and relevant to your research topic?
Introduction/preface

Shows what to expect
An introduction is intended to convey the writer’s idea’s and the background of his research to the reader. Does this information match your expectations?
Conclusion

Define a relationship to your own research
Read the conclusions at the end of each chapter and the final conclusion of the publication.
In the conclusions you will find the answer to the research question of the publication. Is this answer relevant for your topic?
Chapters/paragraphs

How can you use this information in your own research?
Look at the titles of chapters and paragraphs. Read the beginning and the end (conclusions) of each chapter to get a detailed picture of the contents and completeness of the publication.
Is the publication suitable to build on your own research?
Reference list

Check for new insights and/or similarities with your selection
By checking out the literature references you are able to see on which insights the publication is based. Do you recognise any references: author names, journals etc.?
The reference list can help you find new views and insights for your own research.
Date

Define the relevance based on actuality of your topic
Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well? Check the publication dates!
Take notes!

You need to be able to find the publication again, for example when you need it for citations. So write down reference information
Annotate your selection. What is interesting, how it can contribute to your work etc. You need to be able to find  the publication again, for example when you need it for citations. So write down reference information.
For more information about storing, go to: https://tulib.tudelft.nl/managing-your-information/reference-management/
For more information about referencing, go to: https://tulib.tudelft.nl/writing-publishing/how-to-cite/

What

Why

How to select and prioritize

Title

Get a first broad sense of the subject and the relevance
A proper title (incl. subtitle) is not too long and indicates where the article is about.
Scan the title for relevant keywords that you have determined in advance.
This can help to prioritize the titles on your reading list
Tip: a title does not always cover the content of a webpage!
Author and affiliation

Recognise the author based on reputation and recognition (authority)
To determine the authority of an author in a certain field try to answer these questions:
Do I know the author? Is she/he an authority, a recognised author in the field?
Or if you don’t now :
Did you find several articles about the same topic written by this author? In that case he/she probably is an expert on this topic.
Look also at the affiliation. The affiliation gives you additional information, for instance does the author work at a (in the field) well-known university or institute.
Introduction/preface

Shows what to expect
An introduction is intended to convey the writer’s idea’s and the background of his research to the reader. Does this information match your expectations?
Chapters/paragraphs

How can you use this information in your own research?
Look at the titles of chapters and paragraphs. Read the beginning and the end (conclusions) of each chapter to get a detailed picture of the contents and completeness of the publication.
Is the publication suitable to build on your own research?
External links

Check for new insights and/or similarities with your selection
On which insights is a website based?
Do links on a website still work and what kind of sources do they lead to? Do you recognise these sources?
Date

Define the relevance based on actuality of your topic
Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well? Check the publication dates!
URL

Check the reliability of a website
Use reliable, well-known websites and be aware of commercial websites. Check domain suffixes:
.com =commercial site
. edu= educational institution
.gov= government
.org=non-profit organization.
Takes notes!

You need to be able to find the publication again, for example when you need it for citations. So write down reference information.
Annotate your selection. What is interesting, how it can contribute to your work etc. You need to be able to find  the publication again, for example when you need it for citations. So write down reference information.
For more information about storing, go to: https://tulib.tudelft.nl/managing-your-information/reference-management/
For more information about referencing, go to: https://tulib.tudelft.nl/writing-publishing/how-to-cite/

Highlight or take notes of interesting or important sections.

3. Zoom in on the useful information

Scanning the information will help you to decide on or select which articles, books etc. you will read in more detail. If the text is complicated and contains a lot of information, you may need to read it more than once to fully understand it.

4. Ask yourself questions

Be critical about what you read and ask yourself questions such as:

  • How does the author know this and does he give any scientific evidence?
  • How does this compare to other things I have read or know?
  • Do I understand the methodology, reasoning and evidence?
  • Do I agree with this author?

5. Take notes

Think about the purpose of your reading: take notes about how you can use the information in your paper. When taking notes, link them to the document or reference of the source to make sure you can find it back later. Also use your own words in order to avoid potential plagiarism.
Take notes about:

  • What does the author say, and where (so you can find it again).
  • Do I agree?
  • Which other publications does this author agree or disagree with.

Making a mindmap can be useful for taking notes while you read or to summarize and understand what you have read.

There are many free mind mapping tools and tutorials available. Most tools require an account, for instance Coggle, Mindmeister and Wisemapping. If you don’t want to register yourself you can use Mindmup, but the capacity and functionalities are limited.
For more information on free and open source mind mapping tools you can consult this blog.

Making a mindmap can be helpful to summarize selected articles for your research. If you make a proper mindmap you are able to recall the contents of the articles you read before. It takes a few steps to build a mindmap.

Step 1:

Read the articles closely. Underline important sentences and put circles around keywords.

Step 2:

Determine the structure of the articles: are there chapters and paragraphs?  When an article is well-structured, you can use the structure for setting up the branches of the mind map.

Step 3:

Take a sheet of paper and start with putting the topic of your research in the centre of the sheet.

Step 4:

Branching: start by drawing the main branches and branch them further.
For the main branches use the chapters (topics) of the articles. For secondary branches use the paragraphs (sub-topics). Develop the secondary branches further by adding even smaller branches. These branches contain details and examples.

While branching remember that it is important to use keywords instead of sentences. The keywords in the main branches are usually more abstract and can be common to several articles. In the secondary branches the keywords are more concrete and can differ from one article to another and complete each other. But put in everything that you have underlined while reading the articles.

Step 5:

Work with a few different coloured pens to give each branch its own colour. This way you associate the branch with the colour and remember the information more easily.
Use visual elements like drawings or symbols to replace text. Use arrows to connect different sub-topics with each other. Frames or clouds can quickly show what’s important.

Step 6:

It is important to get a complete picture of the essence of your research topic. Ask yourself a few questions: does the mind map gives a complete overview? Do the keywords make sense?
Make some changes if necessary.

Step 7:

If you want to find out you made a clear mind map,  look at it at a later time and see how much of the articles you can recall. If you do not remember that much, maybe you didn’t use the right keywords or some connections are missing. Try to find out what went wrong, so you won’t make the same mistakes again next time you make a mind map.

see also:

Learning how to read for research requires a lot of practice.
The table below summarizes advanced reading strategies and techniques. You can use this as a checklist during your reading process.

 Table: Summary of reading strategies and techniques (Edwards, P.N.)
Source: “Summery of reading strategies and techniques” by P.N. Edwards is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Tips and tricks

Text-to-speech software
If you have difficulty reading, for example because of dyslexia, you could try text-to-speech software (or TTS) to have your computer read aloud to you. TU Delft offers a TextAid license free of charge for students with a disability.

Look for video tutorials about your topic. Do not use them as a replacement for written publications, but if you dislike reading, you can use YouTube or Apple iTunes U to find relevant video tutorials published by international top universities. A podcast can provide a good introduction to a subject.

References

ClkerFreeVectorImages. (2014). A man carefully reading a book [Image]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reading-297450.png

Crème, P. and Lea, M. R. (2008). Writing at university: a guide for students. (3rd ed.). Open University Press.

Edwards, P. N. (2008). How to Read a Book. (v5.0). http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtoread.pdf

Mordy, J. (2021). The best 7 free and open source mind mapping software. https://www.goodfirms.co/blog/best-free-and-open-source-mind-mapping-software

Back to top