Tips for Autistic Students: How to Read Academic STEM Articles

Patrick Dwyer explores the different times autistic students may be asked to read academic STEM articles. Depending on the goal, students can expect to dedicate different amounts of time and resources to the material. Some situations call for an in-depth engagement with academic STEM articles, others a more cursory treatment. Read on to learn more!

The Subtleties of Reading Academic Articles

A little while ago, someone from Stairway to STEM asked me an interesting question: what, in my opinion, was the right way to read a scientific article?

Unfortunately, it’s not a question with a simple answer. We want to read the article as thoroughly as we need in order to extract whatever information we’re going to need, but on the other hand, we don’t want to be too perfectionistic and waste time committing irrelevant details to memory. The problem is that the amount of information we’re going to need depends on the context, which means that the way we’re going to read the article will also have to depend on the context.

Before I go any farther, I should say that I’m writing this post assuming that you’re already familiar with the parts and structure of a scientific article. When relevant, I will try to mention humanities articles, but the primary focus of this post will be on scientific articles. I also want to be clear that I’m talking about the kind of article that goes in a scholarly journal, not a textbook.

Now, with that out of the way, I think there are four major circumstances in which you might have to read academic articles as part of your undergraduate classes:

1. Required Readings

The article might be a required reading that you’re going to be tested on. In this case, you’re going to want to read the article very thoroughly and be prepared to demonstrate your knowledge in the test. Don’t just memorize the facts – take the relevant facts and try to understand how they relate to one another.

Of course, we need to figure out which facts are relevant and which ones aren’t. I suggest reading the whole article from start to finish, and as you do so, think about the class and the instructor. Try to use anything you know from the lectures, from previous tests, from study guides, or other sources of information to figure out what bits of the article are important, then make notes based on those bits. Finally, study the notes – again, not aiming for rote memorization, but using strategies that aim to give you an integrated understanding of the material.

While we’re talking about assigned readings, instructors often assign readings as preparation for lectures – material that should be read before a lecture on the same topic. Personally, I find that hearing a real person speak in a lecture can often be a great introduction to reading a text, and I usually find I get more out of a reading – whether it be a textbook or an article – after hearing a lecture based around it. That being said, some instructors will use quizzes or iclicker questions to force students to do the reading before the lecture. And, furthermore, I realize that other people with different learning styles might have different preferences than me. Do what works best for you in your own context.

2. References for Argumentative Papers

Alternatively, you might be writing an argumentative paper, a paper with a thesis. Here, you’ll probably want to read some articles pretty thoroughly – especially if the articles are humanities papers rather than scientific articles, as you may need to understand a complex argument rather than some simple empirical claims based on data. Depending on the class – again, perhaps more for humanities than scientific classes – you may need to engage with some papers in depth. Furthermore, these papers can help you to get the “lay of the land,” as it were, and to get an understanding of the field in which you’re making your argument.

Once you’ve read enough papers in depth and have figured out the lay of the land, you’ll be able to start crafting your thesis and arguments. As you set out your arguments, you may find yourself needing to make particular points and back them up with citations. Now, you can be a little more sloppy in your searches – just go to Google Scholar or the academic search engine of your choice, input your search terms, and try to skim titles and abstracts until you find a paper that makes the points you want. Once you find a candidate paper, you only need to read enough until you are satisfied that it does, indeed, make the point you want to get across. Sometimes you can already tell this from the abstract, though it usually doesn’t hurt to look at the article. If you know enough about a field to evaluate the methods section of a scientific article, check to see whether you think their methods are good enough to justify the claims made in the article.

As you skim articles, you might find some that don’t make the particular point that you’re looking for, but that could be relevant to some other part of the paper. Download these and keep them handy.

When I was an undergraduate student, professors and university librarians would occasionally suggest that I should use academic citation managers like Mendeley. For a while, I ignored them, and just kept downloading PDF copies of papers and storing them like regular files.

However, I eventually came to realize that using these tools was much more convenient than keeping a bunch of PDF copies of papers everywhere. The tools automatically generate citations, and while there can be errors in these, it is still faster to correct the automatically-generated citations than to start writing citations from scratch. Furthermore, Mendeley allows you to store the same paper in multiple folders, and when you have papers that are relevant to several topics (as they often are), this ability to cross-file references can be very handy.

Unfortunately, by the time I finally started using Mendeley, I had something like a thousand papers sitting around in my hard drive. Needless to say, migrating them into Mendeley was a lot of work, and I regret not using the tool from the start. Please learn from my mistakes, especially if you plan to remain in academia after your graduation!

3. References for Summary Papers

You might also be writing a summary paper, a descriptive paper rather than an argumentative one. Here, the exact approach you should take will depend on the scope of the paper. If you’re just summarizing an article or two that have been assigned specifically, read them very closely and carefully.

Alternatively, if you’re summarizing an entire field, you’ll want to read a larger number of papers in slightly less depth – but you’ll still want to read these papers thoroughly, not just bring them in to make a particular argumentative point. The exact material you are looking for when reading will depend on the parameters of the paper – what, exactly, you are supposed to summarize and in how much detail.

When you are searching for relevant papers, to make sure you are getting a good sense of the field, it might be useful to look and see what papers are cited in the papers you are reading (these are easily found in the references section of the paper), as well as what papers cite the papers you are reading (Google Scholar and many academic search engines give you the option to explore these citing papers).

4. Readings for Discussions

Finally, you might be reading papers to prepare for a seminar or tutorial discussion. Your goal should be to know enough to meaningfully participate in the class discussion (participation may be a part of your grade) without having to waste time on minor details. This means you’ll be selectively reading for anything that could be an interesting point of discussion. Critical points can be especially useful – if you spot dubious assumptions, flaws in the paper’s methods, or dubious interpretations of data, be sure to note these. As you get settled into the specific class, you’ll likely get a sense of the sort of things that tend to be discussed and you’ll be able to prepare accordingly. You’ll also need to get an overall understanding of the paper that is good enough to follow the rest of the discussion, but you don’t necessarily need more.

Of course, not all of us are comfortable speaking in class discussions, and it can be difficult to get one’s points when there are many people speaking. When participation is a part of your grade, this can be problematic! You may want to speak to your instructor about alternative ways of participating. For example, you might be able to offer short written reflections about the readings instead of speaking in class.

Beyond your undergraduate classes, there are other contexts in which the way you’ll read papers will again be different. If you are continuing into research, there are a whole new set of scenarios to consider. If you’re trying to duplicate a paper’s method, you’ll want to read the paper very thoroughly (and probably contact the paper’s author). If you’re just trying to get a citation to make a particular point for your own paper, a quick skim (like to get a supporting point for an argumentative paper, as discussed above, but maybe a little more carefully) is probably enough.

If you do intend to do research in a particular field, it can be useful to keep abreast of new developments in the scholarly literature. There’s a tool, somewhat whimsically called PubCrawler, that allows you to set up an automatic weekly query for any newly-published papers that meet particular search terms. If you come across something interesting but not immediately relevant, you can download the paper into Mendeley or another citation manger.

As you become more and more familiar with a given field or subfield, you’ll probably find that the way you will read scientific articles will change. When you first start out (especially in highly technical fields), you’ll have to focus more heavily on the introduction and discussion sections. These will give you some background information about the research questions motivating the study and they will tell you how the authors interpreted their results. They won’t necessarily give you the information you need to critically evaluate every detail of the article.

However, as you become more familiar with the field and the research methods used in the field, your focus will shift. You’ll probably already know a lot of the background info, so you’ll be able to skip over much of the introduction, though perhaps not the authors’ specific research questions and hypotheses. After you’ve read these research questions, you’ll find yourself reading the methods and results sections with a more practiced eye. As you familiarize yourself with the methods used in the study, and the results the authors obtained, you may find yourself agreeing with the authors’ interpretations of their results – or you may find yourself disagreeing. This growing capacity for critical thought is one of the markers of expertise.

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Patrick is an autistic graduate student in the psychology department at UC Davis with a broad interest in helping to ensure that autistic and neurodivergent people can lead fulfilling lives. He plans to use eye-tracking and electrophysiology to explore the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum and different phenotypes of autism, and is particularly interested in studying sensory processing and sensory sensitivities in autism. He has also facilitated peer-support groups for other autistic college students. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on his blog at autisticscholar.com.

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