Critical reading as research

 

Daniel Gile

January 30, 2007

 

Critical reading (CR) is a regular part of research life: it occurs when reviewing the literature in preparation for one’s own studies, when reviewing a publication for a journal or collective volume editor and when assessing a thesis or dissertation as an examiner. In the last two cases, CR is primarily viewed as a service to the research community – an important one, because it helps both the community uphold quality standards and the authors by providing feedback and guidance to them so that they can improve their product and their future research practice.

            An often neglected aspect of CR is its empirical research dimension: it looks at data and analyzes them, ideally with rigorous logic, systematically, objectively, cautiously, drawing on the collective work of the scientific community, and results in a publication. In particular, it is an exercise in rigorous reading and rigorous assessment of data. As such, it is probably an efficient way of honing and maintaining the reader’s fundamental aptitude for research. For TS scholars who have not received hands-on training in research methods and may know the theory without having had the chance to learn by doing, this is a valuable opportunity to learn by reading and assessing, as it is easier to see problems in other people’s research than in one’s own. Once they have been detected in other authors’ work and once their effect on a reader has been identified through CR, it can be hoped that the critical readers will get inspiration from them for their own work. For scholars who have benefited from training, it is a valuable opportunity to do maintenance of their existing research skills.

            The value of CR to the critical readers depends largely on two factors. One is the baseline research skills of the readers. For instance, if they are not familiar with the principles of experimental design, they may not detect a faulty one in a manuscript they read. This does not reduce the value of CR for them to nought; many weaknesses (and strengths) can be identified through common sense – provided they devote all their attention to the exercise. Indeed, the other determinant of the value of CR to the reader is motivation.

            One way to ensure that CR benefits from the best possible conditions, at least when beginning CR, is to actually teach CR in hands-on exercises: students are given CR assignments and instructors assess their reports and provide them with guidance, which includes providing them with the required baseline knowledge in research methods principles. Ideally, CR should be taught in doctoral schools over at least a semester and preferably a year. The second-best option is probably the workshop option, with TS scholars attending one or several such short workshops, inter alia in pre-Congress workshops.