Summarizing Research Articles

Back in my senior year of college, I took a graduate class that required me to summarize one or two research articles a week. Though I absolutely hated it at a time (mostly because I hadn’t yet figured out how to read research papers yet), I found that it became an invaluable skill. What better way to make sure that you understand a research paper than condensing its many pages into a measly paragraph or two?

However, that’s the problem isn’t it? There’s just so much information to pick through that it seems almost impossible even know what to write in your summary, much less keep it within a handful of sentences. But whether your doing this for an assignment or to better understand a paper in your field, here are some tips and tricks on how to effectively summarize a paper!

Know What to Looking For

If you’re reading a paper for the summary, it’s best to know the kind of information you’re looking to get out of it. Though the actual of your contents may change depending on why you’re writing the summary in the first place, typically, most summary should contain the following aspects of the paper:

  1. Background to frame the issue
  2. The specific question they’re trying to solve
  3. The methodology they used
  4. Their overall findings/answer to the above questions
  5. What science is still left to be done?

If you’re reading more specifically because this paper is relevant to your research, it might also be wise to keep an eye out for information that specifically relates to your project.

Scan & Highlight

I always recommend doing an initial scan on the paper because diving straight in can very easily make you get caught in all the fine details. Therefore, focus on the first and last few sentences of each section (especially the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion) in order to obtain the five aspects of the paper listed above. Once you find it, be sure to highlight it or annotate it in some way, that way when you read the paper again (because you WILL read the paper again), you will be better able to pinpoint the sections you need to focus on in order to pick out the additional information you need to make an A+ summary.

Read Deeply & Take Notes

Unfortunately a good summary doesn’t just list the five aspects I mentioned previously. Well, I guess it can. But if you’re being graded, you probably won’t get a good score and if you’re doing this for research purposes, you really won’t get much out when you have to refer back to your summary. To summarize a research paper properly, you should also provides context and background so that the reader (you, your teacher, your classmates, etc) can get the general gist of why the research is important, why the findings were significant and why is research in this field still important. Therefore, the next step is to read the paper a little more deeply to better understand it and be sure to take notes as you do! That way, when you’re ready to write your summary, you can look at your notes instead of reading the paper a even more times!

(If you are unsure on how to read a science papers, check out my two blog posts on the subject that discuss the different methods I use: [1], [2])

Write your summary!

So there you have it. By now you should have a list of the article’s main points and have notes of supplemental information to add context to your summary. I recommend writing this in the same order as the research article, starting with the introduction and ending with the results and “knowlege gaps” or questions that have yet to be answered. Also, for me, my first draft is usually just a brain dump–a stream of consciousness, if you will. Therefore, my method of choice is to get all the information written down first and then worry about the editing and word count second.

Hope that helps! Anyone out there have other tips to summarize research articles? If you do, be sure to leave them down in the comments section!

Thanks for reading!


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