Reading and understanding scientific texts

Searching and reading often overlap because you naturally need to read the resources you find in order to decide whether to include them in your work.

To assess whether a book or an article is relevant to your research question, you don’t have to read the entire work right away. A review can help you determine if it’s worth investing the time to read the entire content of a book. For articles, the abstract is a useful decision-making tool, as it provides a brief, concise summary of key information about the content, such as the research question, methodology, significant results, and conclusions.

Additionally, you can refer to the table of contents or the subject terms of a text. If you find what you’re looking for, it’s a good idea to start by first reading the introduction and conclusion of the text to gain a deeper (yet not too time-consuming) insight into its contents.

If you don’t find important terms relevant to your research question in any of these places, it’s very likely that the text not the right source for you, and you may need to adjust your search. Don’t forget to also search for synonyms, translations, or different spellings of your search terms during this process.

Reading with the SQ3R method

SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) is a simple and effective method to better understand, retain, and recall information while studying. Give it a try and see if it helps you!

Survey: Begin by getting an overview of the topic or text you want to engage with. Read the headings, subheadings, introductions, and conclusions to get an idea of the key points.

Question: Think of questions for the text. Are there specific aspects the text should cover to be relevant to my work? What questions should be answered in the text to improve my understanding? What perspective or opinion is represented in the text? These questions can help you read the text purposefully and extract the information that is relevant to you.

Read: Read the text thoroughly. Pay attention to finding answers to your questions and try to understand and internalize the information. Highlight important passages or take notes to refer back to later.

Recite: Now, go through the text again and try to summarize the key information in your own words. Only copy parts of it directly if you intend to use the specific passage as a quote in your work. Clearly mark these passages (including page numbers) so you can later distinguish your own wording from quoted material.

Review: Regularly review the information and quotes you’ve extracted from the text, and consider if they are still relevant to your work. Use your questions and notes to ensure that the selected literature still contributes to answering your research question, and that you haven’t overlooked anything important.

Other reading methods

SkimmingQuick overview of text elements such as titles, table of contents, abstracts, (chapter) headings, illustrations, and tablesProvides a rough understanding of content and helps to quickly assess the relevance of a text
ScanningScanning the text bit by bit; reading parts of individual paragraphs but not the entire textGrasping as much content as possible within a very short time
Selective ReadingFully reading a few selected chapters or sections within a text.Reducing the amount of reading to focus on the most relevant parts. Inclusion of texts that are only partially of interest.
Detailed ReadingThorough and slow reading, taking notes and looking up unfamiliar terms.Complete understanding of the text or section, including its structure and argumentation.
Inspirational ReadingNot in-depth reading but scanning sentences and sections for possible ideas.Gaining inspiration for developing one’s own ideas and approaches to a topic.
Evaluative ReadingDetailed reading with a focus on aspects such as methodology, argumentation, and conclusions.Critically questioning the text, analyzing its content, and using it for one’s own (counter-)argumentation.

Literature and recommendations

Kruse, O. (2018). Lesen und Schreiben: Der richtige Umgang mit Texten im Studium. UTB 3355. Konstanz: UVK-Verlags-Gesellschaft.

Lange, U. (2018). Fachtexte. lesen-verstehen-wiedergeben. Paderborn: UTB; Ferdinand Schöningh (4002).

Leuze, K. & Unger, H. v. (2015). Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten im Soziologiestudium. UTB 4314. Paderborn: Fink.

Voss, R. (2022). Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten … leicht verständlich (8., überarbeitete und korrigierte Auflage). Konstanz [u.a.]: UVK Verlags Gesellschaft.