The Ellen Clarke Bertrand Library

FOUN 098 58: Love and Sex on the Silk Road: Reading & Understanding Academic Sources

Reading Academic Sources

Reading and understanding academic sources can be one of the most challenging parts of the research process. Even if you're reading popular or general sources, close reading requires critical thinking and analysis. 

When you're reading, you'll want to try to understand the source on multiple levels.

  1. Understanding what individual words and sentences mean.
  2. Understanding what argument and the evidence presented.
  3. Understanding the context, audience, scope, and purpose.


This can be challenging, especially if you're trying to work on all three levels at once.

Ideally, you'll read a source three times, focusing on each element respectively in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd read-throughs.  This takes time, so it is best to start your research early. 

Level 1:

We often take for granted our ability to understand the meaning of words from context clues. Most of the time this will serve us well, but academic papers use a lot of specialized language and assume that the audience is primarily other academic experts. 

How do you make sure that you understand what you are reading at the word and sentence level?

When you are reading an academic article, underline or highlight any words that you do not understand. 

Stop after each paragraph and look up those words, then go back and re-read the text

Academic sources can be difficult to read. Take your time, try not to get frustrated, and open up a new tab in your browser to look up words and phrases that are unfamiliar to you

Level 2:

Once you have an understanding of the words, terms, and phrases being used you will have the foundation to take a closer look at the content of the article.

Here are some ways to gain a better understanding of the content:

  • Write an outline of the article
    • What is the main point of each section or paragraph?
    • How does it relate to the section or paragraph before and after it?
    • What evidence is presented in each section or paragraph?
  • Take notes while you read
    • Highlight or put a box around sentences or phrases that present specific arguments or evidence.
    • Write down any connections you see between the article and other articles you've read on the topic or discussions you've had in class.
    • Write down any questions you have while you are reading.  When you finish, see if you can find answers in the text.  If you can't, consider doing further research or bring those questions to your professor.
  • Re-state the main arguments of the article - write a one-paragraph summary of the article. (without looking at the abstract!)

Level 3:

While the first level of reading helps you understand what the author is saying, and the second helps you identify what they mean, the third level helps you analyze and contextualize the source so that you can respond to it. This overlaps with CRAAP evaluation and can give you things to SAY ABOUT your sources in your work (meaning a better and easier to write paper!)


  • When was the article written?
  • Where was it published?
  • What else was written around the same time on the topic?
  • What else was written in the same journal issue?
  • What else has that author written? 


  • Who is the author writing for?
  • What is the purpose
    • What argument are they making?
    • What do they want the audience to learn?
    • What action do they want the audience to take?


  • What particular part of the issue or topic are they covering?
  • Do they mention larger/smaller parts of the issue or related issues?
  • Do they address counter-arguments?


One way tool you can use to help you consider these questions is the below table (download it using the link below).  Fill out this table as you read and reflect on what you have read.  Save this information for each article you read as you complete your research and use it as you write your paper.

Academic Sources?

An academic source is one written by and often reviewed closely by scholars with an academic expertise in the field they are writing and working in. These sources almost always use established ways of knowing and methodologies (research methods) that are widely accepted in the field and build upon past research and/or established knowledge in unique ways. Because of this, academic works tend to be much more specific than other types of sources.

The easiest way to tell if a source is academic is to google who wrote it and where it was published.

Peer Review in this context, means a specific process beyond editing that these sources go through. These sources are carefully read and evaluated by other academic experts in the same/a similar field. They look closely at the originality of the research question, the methods, the results or arguments, and how the author uses different types of evidence to support their claims. Most published academic works go through several rounds of review and revision before they are published.

Some signs you have an academic article: 

  • In-text citations, footnotes/endnotes, works cited, references, or bibliography
  • An abstract (short summary of the work at the beginning. Most common in sciences and social sciences)
  • Article may be organized into sections such as Methodology, Results, and Conclusion
  • Charts, tables, or graphs may be included within the text or in appendices
  • May include complex language and terminology targeted toward other scholars in the field
  • Author credential listed on the front page somewhere (or if you google the author, they're likely a professor somewhere)


Some signs you have an academic book:

  • Written and/or edited by an academic expert  (or multiple.). Their credentials may be listed in the book or easily searchable.
  • Published by a university or other academic publisher (like Unversity of Oxford Press or Sage)
  • In-text citations, footnotes/endnotes, works cited, references, or bibliography
  • May be a collection of chapters that each look like academic articles or a monograph (same topic/ author for the entirety of the book)
  • May include complex language and terminology targeted toward other scholars in the field