When to Skim-Read and When to Deep-Read

Have you ever gone on an article downloading spree? It’s great – it’s like online shopping for academics. Only instead of drinking too much wine and overspending on TradeMe, you log into your favourite database and download too many articles in an increasingly disorganised maze of digital folders and personal libraries.

The hangover hits hard the next day, though. You sift through the insurmountable piles of reading in your folders and think: why did I go on that Google Scholar binge last night? How on earth am I going to get through all these articles? Where am I going to get this much reading time? Realistically, I don’t read everything I download in thorough detail. Some of it I ignore. Some of it I skim. But occasionally, there’s something that I do pay more attention to. Learning to ‘triage’ readings into the necessary, the peripheral, and the optional is a bit of an art form.

There are times when it makes good sense to skim-read. For example if you’re browsing for inspiration; or just looking for headline findings; when you are trying to build an overview of a topic in your mind; or when you’re reading a text that will contribute in only a minor way to your thesis. In those sorts of circumstances, it’s a strategic use of time to read quickly.

But there are some circumstances in which a quick read is not enough. In those circumstances, it’s better to do what I think of as ‘deep-reading.’ The kind of reading in which you spend twenty minutes on a page; use half a Whitcoulls’ worth of post-its and highlighters making extensive notes; and read the key same sentence fifty times before embroidering it on a cushion. OK, maybe that last part is an exaggeration. But deep-reading is intensive, and it can be obsessive. It’s what you do when you need to absorb a text.

The good news is, deep-reading can be very pleasurable. You can make a cup of tea, put on your comfiest socks, and really settle in. If you feel like it, you can even take the opportunity to leave the office – since deep-reading can happen anywhere.

Fave deep-reading location: a waterfront coffee shop

Here are some times when it makes sense to read deeply:

When your source is seminal in your field

If you are an evolutionary biologist, you probably need to deep-read On the Origin of Species. Sure, there will be more contemporary texts to know as well, and you might not even cite Darwin in your thesis; but when your entire field is based on a particular text, you need to know it inside and out.

When you need to understand (or even replicate) the methodology used by the authors

Deep-reading research papers that use a particular methodology is one of the best ways to come to grips with how that methodology works in practice. If you skim a paper for headline findings, you won’t typically gain an understanding of how the findings were derived. But if you deep-read – if you absorb information about the research process, linger over tables and calculations, and pore through appendices filled with methodological detail – then you are likely to gain an understanding of how the research was performed and how the data was analysed. That’s a valuable exercise if you need to use the same methodology in your own research.

When the text supports your research in a foundational way

If you plan to build your research on a particular concept or text, you need to know it very well. I used posthumanism as a key concept in my doctoral thesis. While it was useful to skim-read a whole bunch of books and articles about posthumanism, there was one book (N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman) that I read more deeply. I singled that book out partly because it was more relevant than others to my take on posthumanism; and partly because it was the book that inspired a huge wave of posthumanist thinking in the late 1990s. It was foundational to both the field of posthumanist research and to my project; so I needed to know it well.

When you anticipate examiners asking why you didn’t cite the text

Sometimes there will be a text that examiners expect you to cite. Maybe it’s a research paper that occupies the same niche area as your thesis; maybe it’s a famous book that most scholars in your field use. But you won’t always want to go with what’s expected. You might have very valid reasons for not citing an obvious source, but if there’s any chance that examiners may question the omission, you’ll need to have deep-read the text in order to defend your choice not to include it. Sure, it can feel odd to spend time reading something that you’re not going to use, but in some circumstances it’s a valid defensive move.

When the text is the object of your research

If you are a media, communications, or literary scholar, sometimes the text you’re reading will be the object of your research. It almost goes without saying that you need to deep-read in those circumstances!

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink. She has a research background in science and narrative. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. She has previously researched fictional representations of evolution and quantum mechanics. She has taught such diverse texts as Blade Runner and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her most obscure skill is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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