Read Your Sources Carefully
Almost all academic, scholarly, and scientific writing depends on being able to read, understand, think about, and interpret a difficult text. Reading a difficult text differs from what I call skim reading and/or ordinary reading, however.
Skim reading entails reading portions of a text—usually the book (or article) introduction and conclusion; all chapter titles, introductions, and conclusions; individual topic sentences; anything in bold or highlighted text; and anything that is unclear or interesting. You read for general ideas and concepts; you skip the details.
Ordinary reading differs from skim reading. Ordinary reading entails a complete reading of a text—usually you read all portions of the text. You strive to remember the content, both the ideas and details. You often do this type of reading when you want to learn about the specific content. You may not think too deeply about the content, however. You may not consider the implications or consequences of the content, the structure of the text, or the author’s intentions.
Close reading differs from ordinary reading. Close reading entails a very thorough reading —you may read passages of a text, or an entire text. You observe facts and ideas, just like ordinary reading. But you also strive to notice particular features of the text. You may look for rhetorical features, structural elements, or scientific references. You may also look for similarities, oppositions, or particular questions. In either case, these initial observations start the process of close reading. After you have made a note of your initial observations, you start the second part of close reading: interpreting your observations.
Interpreting your observations of a text requires you to move from the particular to the general. The process of moving from particular observations (or data) to general conclusions is known as inductive reasoning. You note particular facts and details; you then draw general conclusions or interpretations based on your observations and careful thinking and reflection about the meaning of your observations. Basically, you ask yourself the question: What can I make of my observations? You can also ask the question: My observations add up to what?
Here’s how to begin the process based on a close reading of a passage from E. O. Wilson’s (1992) classic book on biodiversity, The Diversity of Life.
1) Start with a pencil or pen in hand as you read. You will annotate the text.
What’s annotating? The process of annotating means you will underline, highlight, or somehow mark anything that you find interesting, surprising, or significant. Also mark anything that raises questions of any type. You can make notes in the margins. Annotating a text makes you pay careful attention to what you read—it also forces you to respond to what the author is saying and doing in the text. You start thinking about how or why the author is saying something. This is the first step in the process of moving from reading a text to writing your own text. Follow along as we closely read this passage:
“But I was glad to be alone. The discipline of the dark envelope summoned fresh images from the forest of how real organisms look and act. I needed to concentrate for only a second and they came alive as eidetic images, behind closed eyelids, moving across fallen leaves and decaying humus. I sorted the memories this way and that in hope of stumbling on some pattern not obedient to abstract theory of textbooks. I would have been happy with any pattern. The best of science doesn’t consist of mathematical models and experiments, as textbooks make it seem. Those come later. It springs fresh from a more primitive mode of thought, wherein the hunter’s mind weaves ideas from old facts and fresh metaphors and the scrambled crazy images of things recently seen. To move forward is to concoct new patterns of thought, which in turn dictate the design of the models and experiments. Easy to say, difficult to achieve.
The subject fitfully engaged that night, the reason for this research trip to Brazilian Amazon, had in fact become an obsession and, like all obsessions, very likely a dead end. It was the kind of favorite puzzle that keeps forcing its way back because its very intractability makes it perversely pleasant, like an overly familiar melody intruding into the relaxed mind because it loves you and will not leave you. I hoped that some new image might propel me past the jaded puzzle to the other side, to ideas strange and compelling.
Bear with me for a moment while I explain this bit of personal esoterica; I am approaching the subject of central interest. Some kinds of plants and animals are dominant, proliferating new species and spreading over large parts of the world. Others are driven back until they become rare and threatened by extinction. Is there a single formula for this biogeographic difference, for all kinds of organisms? The process, if articulated, would be a law or at least a principle of dynastic succession in evolution. I was intrigued by the circumstance that social insects, the group on which I have spent most of my life, are among the most abundant of all organisms. And among the social insects, the dominant subgroup is the ants …” (pp. 4-5).
2) Observe. Notice things in the text. Look for repetitions, similarities, contradictions, and oppositions.
What do you notice in this passage? Wilson says he is glad to be alone; he wants to concentrate on finding a pattern. He invites us to think about why he’s looking for a pattern by telling us that good science depends on thinking like a hunter. We must stop and ask ourselves why he is talking about hunters. He mentions the word “metaphor.” Is Wilson using a metaphor? Is the “hunter’s mind” a metaphor? What do hunters do? We realize hunters look for clues about an animal’s location. They observe small, often insignificant, signs as they try and find their prey. This observation tells us that Wilson may be telling us that all good scientists resemble hunters. They observe ideas, facts, and metaphors, trying to make sense of them. Then he says we need to concoct new patterns of thinking before designing scientific experiments. Why does he make this statement? Is he suggesting that he wants to design a model or conduct an experience, but he needs to first find a new pattern? We’re unsure but we continue reading.
3) What do I make of my observations? What do they mean? Ask questions about what you’re noticing. Ask “how” and “why” questions in particular.
Wilson now talks about his obsession and reason for his research trip. He observes that favorite obsessions intrude, like familiar melodies. But he then suggests they intrude on all of us. Why does he make this statement? Is Wilson suggesting we might have similar puzzles that intrude on us, too? Or is he inviting us to concentrate because he is presenting us with a puzzle? Should we look for a pattern in what he is saying? We’re unsure which answer is correct, but we keep reading. He then says that he is looking to move “to the other side, to ideas strange and compelling.” We think this is a perplexing but suggestive statement. We ask ourselves the question: the other side of what? To what strange and compelling ideas? We remember he’s solving a puzzle. We think, “Ah, perhaps he’s tantalizing us by saying the puzzle answer will be most strange.” He thinks his puzzle answer will be strange. But perhaps we were right about our other interpretation; he wants us to concentrate and solve a puzzle in the text, too.
Now Wilson asks us to be patient. He knows we may be getting a little tired of reading so carefully as we try and understand his metaphors and indirect statements. He gets our attention by saying, “I am approaching the subject of central interest.” Now we really pay attention. We realize he will present his puzzle in the open. This is his central research question. He says some species dominant, proliferate, and spread. But other species become rare or go extinct. He tells us his research question: He’s looking for a single formulae that explains this fact. He says he got interested in this question because he likes to study ants. Ants are the most abundant organism, and they are a social insect. Now we wonder, why has he suddenly switched to talking about ants? Why ants? What do ants have to do with this puzzle about species dominance? Surely, he’s not suggesting that ants determine whether other species thrive or die? But we remember he likes metaphors. Perhaps he’s using a metaphor? Do ants stand for something else? We don’t know, so we go back and look at the details about ants. He says they are abundant and social. What other species are abundant and social? We recall that humans are abundant and social. Does he mean the human species? Is he suggesting that humans will eventually mutate into new species? Does that make sense to us? Can humans quickly mutate into new species that will spread over the planet? That answer doesn’t seem quite right, so we go back to the text. Is he saying that the human species determines whether other species thrive or die? Now this statement sounds more likely. We need more evidence before we can reach this interpretation or conclusion, however, so we must go on, reading and searching for clues. But we remember: we think he’s interested in how or why humans cause species extinction.
The bottom line: As we read and respond to the text in this manner, we notice things, watch for clues, ask questions, and formulate an interpretation. This entire process of reading a text closely is central to reasoning toward your own ideas. As we reason toward our own ideas, we write them down so that other individuals may some day read what we have to say and then reason toward their own ideas. In this way, the entire scientific and scholarly process depends on reading closely, thinking critically, and writing carefully about complicated, intriguing, and important research questions.
Special Note on How to Read Scientific Articles
First read the abstract or introduction of the text. This text will be the very first part of the article; an abstract normally follows the title of an article. It’s a concise summary that describes the article’s main findings and supporting evidence. As you read the abstract, start questioning the text. Ask yourself: What’s the text’s hypothesis, prediction, observation, and uncertainty? Read the abstract slowly and carefully; a good abstract will tell you a lot about the text. When you have finished reading the abstract (make notes and start asking yourself questions in the margins), then read the introduction and then skip over everything and go to the conclusion. The conclusion will normally restate the findings, supporting evidence, and uncertainties. If you read the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion, you should have a good idea of what will be in the article. Be sure and note down anything that is unclear. (There is almost always something that is unclear. DO NOT GET UPSET! I often have to read a complicated article 2-3-4-5 times before I understand it!) After you have read these sections, you should read the remainder of the text. Your reading approach will differ depending on whether the article is a social or natural/physical science text.
If you are reading a social science text, go back to the beginning and reread the abstract. Then read the article straight through from the introduction to the conclusion. You may skim the methods and the testing sections—read just enough so that you are informed about the general way the author conducted the study. But you should read the results section carefully.
If you are reading a natural/physical science text, go back to the beginning and reread the abstract. Then read the introduction. Then read the discussion section. As you can see, you are reading the text from either end, slowly honing in on the middle sections. After you have read the introduction, results, discussion, and conclusion, then skim the methods and the testing sections, reading just enough so that you are informed about the general way the author conducted the study. But you should read the results section carefully.