Collecting and Checking Information Sources

When you collect academic sources of information, check whether and to what extent an information source contains relevant information for writing your essay. The relevance of information may be estimated along the following lines: (a) whether the information source at hand touches on the topic you aim to learn (that is, whether it is useful for clarifying and answering your research question), and (b) who produced the information source and how recently the source was published. Usually, information sources, including books, papers, and data, are more reliable if they are produced by experts and based on the results of recent studies. Academic papers include the abstract, author information, and publication date, typically on the first page. Academic books often include a statement of purpose and a summary of the entire content in the preface, and detailed author information may be available on the publisher’s website.

Academic Reading

As with academic writing, academic reading is a complicated activity. there are different types of academic sources of information: research papers, survey papers (also called “review papers”), research reports, academic books, textbooks, popular books (books about science or other academic fields that are written for general audiences), newspapers, and so on.

Different academic sources of information have different main goals. For example, textbooks are written primarily for the main goal of teaching students about the core knowledge and methodologies of an academic discipline in an easy-to-learn style. Certain types of academic sources of information may have more than one main goal. Moreover, academic sources of information have sub-goals. Academic texts are typically divided into parts (chapters, sections, and paragraphs), and each part is directed at a particular goal. Such a goal is a sub-goal of the main goals. In order to evaluate whether the information source succeeds at archiving its main goals, you need to understand what sub-goals it contains and see whether it achieves these sub-goals as well. Academic reading requires figuring out what main and sub-goals the text has and seeing what is done in pursuing these goals.

In particular, a research paper or book often has the main goal of offering reasons or evidence for a specific answer to a research question. It also has sub-goals, such as:

  • Explaining the background and importance of the research question
  • Summarizing, expounding on, and evaluating related studies
  • Laying out the organization of the paper or book
  • Describing the experimental or survey design
  • Reporting and analyzing the result of the experiment or survey
  • Explicating and assessing the significance of the result of the study

Academic reading of a text, thus, often involves comprehension of what main goals (goals of the whole) and sub-goals (goals of each part) the text attempts to achieve. However, it is not always necessary to read a text this way. You may focus only on the types of information you are mainly concerned with. You may have multiple purposes in reading, and different purposes accentuate different types of information. It is easier to gather the relevant information if you set the way forward by determining which of the following purposes you have for reading:

Understanding a whole text
  • Identifying its main and sub-goals
  • Figuring out what the text does to achieve those goals
Evaluating the significance and importance of a text for your study
  • Knowing how many studies have been published on the research question you are interested in
  • Finding how the extant studies are related or unrelated to your study
Learning the relevant research methods
  • Knowing how to construct and evaluate an argument or to design and conduct an experiment or survey
Analyzing and examining a study
  • Examining and assessing the text in terms of its cogency, reliability, validity, significance, etc., and if there are any flaws or problems, avoiding them in your study
Responding to possible criticisms to your study
  • Knowing in advance reasons others might raise against the methods or arguments of your study

Analyzing and Examining a Text

Among these purposes, reading for the purpose of analyzing and examining a study is of great importance, and it is given a special name: “critical reading.” As stated earlier, academic information sources are directed at various goals, and research papers and books usually have the main goal of offering reasons or evidence for a specific answer to a research question. There are different types of research questions and accordingly different types of answers to them: solving a social, political or technical problem, supporting a hypothesis for a phenomenon, offering a positive or negative evaluation of a study, or interpreting a text in one way or another. For this reason, reasons or evidence for an answer to a research question, again, take various forms, but at the very least, they must be reasons or evidence to support that a specific answer—solution, hypothesis, evaluation, or interpretation—is correct or at least promising.

The terms “reasons” and “evidence” may be used interchangeably, but “evidence” specifically means reasons that are obtained by empirical methods, such as experiments and surveys. In order for a reason or evidence to support an answer to a research question, it must make the answer more likely to be correct than not. There are various ways to produce or collect supporting reasons and evidence for an answer. Since different ways are used in different disciplines, some of them may not be readily available to you before you become familiar with the core knowledge and methodology of a particular discipline. Still, we have an everyday understanding of what counts as supporting reasons or evidence. For example, we tend to judge that a reason or evidence does not strongly support an answer when it does not exclude possibilities that other answers are correct.

Analyzing a study includes (a) checking what answer is offered to what research question and (b) identifying what reasons or evidence are intended to support the answer. Examining a study includes evaluating whether and to what extent the reasons or evidence actually support the answer, as they are identified in (a) and (b). Critical reading is the activity of reading a research paper or book by analyzing and examining it, that is, performing all steps from (a) through (c). Critical reading, thus, requires actively engaging with a text rather than passively receiving information from it.

Writing Based on Reading

After you perform academic reading, or more particularly critical reading of texts, you can easily include an overview of them in your essay. There are two types of written overviews of texts.

  • Presenting a condensed version of a single text with all key components (including background, method, argument, discussion, and future direction)
Literature Survey
  • Presenting a concise report of multiple texts with a focus on a particular type of information

In writing a literature survey, you set a particular type of information as a focus point. A focus point may be research questions, methods, answers, etc. A literature survey summarizes texts by comparing them from the perspective of the focus point.

Writing a Summary

The length of a summary of a text varies with the importance of the text for your essay. You may write a long summary of a text if it is important for the answer to your research question, and if not, you may summarize the text in a few sentences. When you write a long summary of a text, check what its parts do to achieve their main and sub-goals, respectively. These goal-directed moves are components of the text, and the summary describes them succinctly. You can choose which components of the text are important for the purposes of your essay; if you include more components, the length of the survey increases. Your summary does not have to arrange the components of the text in the same order as the text does. Feel free to arrange them in a way that will allow the reader of your summary to easily understand which components of the text you are emphasizing. Even when you write a summary of someone else’s work, you have great freedom and responsibility for picking up and arranging information from it.

Ideally, your summary needs to have the following features, but again, you have the freedom to choose which features you focus on.

  • States the points of the text accurately
  • Include all the important points of the text
  • Recount the importance the text places on particular points
  • Inform those who have never read the text of its content
Agency (Originality)
  • Use your own words when stating the points of the text

When you write a short summary, identify the main goals of the text at hand and describe what it does to achieve them. Again, the length of the summary may vary with the importance of the text for your essay. For example, you may summarize a text in one sentence or two sentences, and using two sentences can convey more information about the text.

Example 1:

Kato (2008) reports the finding that employee decision-making is susceptible to bias against women.

Example 2:

There are many studies that bias against women leads to discrimination against women. For example, in Kato’s (1980) study, the same resume with either a male name or a female name was sent to 400 companies, and the resume with a male name was invited for an interview 1.8 times more often than the one with the female name.

Writing a Literature Survey

You may include a literature survey in your essay, which summarizes multiple texts from the perspective of a focus point. A single essay may contain different literature surveys with different focus points. The literature survey is not an unarticulated summary of the contents of texts. In writing a literature survey, you need to consider (a) for what purpose you summarize texts, and (b) in what respect you treat texts as similar or different. (a) is important for deciding the focus point of your literature review. If you want to compare the method you use in your essay with other methods, set the focus point as research methods. If you want to introduce different arguments for the answer to a research question you defend in your essay, set the focus point as arguments for the answer. If you want to discuss possible objections to the answer to a research question you defend in your essay, set the focus point as criticism of the answer. You need to write the literature review in such a way that the reader can understand (a) and (b) clearly.

Example 1: focus point = same or similar topic

There are studies on Asian immigrants in the Canadian education system: Nielsen (2000) on primary education, Khatri (2011) on lower secondary education, and Chevrolet (1998) and Isaac (2015) on higher secondary education. These studies report on how many first- and second-generation students of Asian origin exist in each province and territory in Canada.

Example 2: focus point = criticism of a particular study

Some objections have been raised against Petrov’s (2015) view that artificial intelligence will take away human jobs in twenty years. Yang (2016) argues that Petrov overestimates the progress of artificial intelligence technology, and the mass replacement of human workers with automated processes is unlikely to happen in the first half of the 21st century. Moreover, Oliveira (2018) points out that Petrov’s prediction is based on erroneous demographics. She offers evidence that the population of major countries declines at a faster rate than Petrov predicts, and hence the impact of job deprivation is smaller than Petrov’s estimation.

Recommended Readings
Babin, M., Burnell, C., Pesznecker, S., Rosevear, N. and Wood, J. (2017) The Word on College Reading and Writing. Open Oregon Educational Resources.
Webster, M. (2017) “How to Write an Academic Summary.”
Issue |
Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences & Center for the Studies of Higher Education
First edition |
Author |
Kasaki, Masashi