Academic Papers 101

Academic Papers 101

by Jingwei Chen
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To a high school student, paper is what you write on, journals are diaries, and literature is the collection of classical fiction. Once you enter university and college, these words take on additional meaning. Regardless of your chosen major, you will be expected to read and understand papers published in academic, peer-reviewed journals as well as undertake literature reviews. If this sounds confusing to you, read on!

What are academic papers?

University professors teach and conduct research. Once they have a significant finding, they will write an academic paper describing their discovery, their methods, and their data analysis. Academic papers are formal pieces of professional writing, intended to be read by colleagues in the same field. Students may find these papers difficult to understand due to the technical language and objective voice.

Academic papers are split into two types. One type is the original paper described above, where the information in it is new to the field. The other type is a review paper, where the authors have read and analyzed all the papers on a particular topic and wrote a critical summary of all these papers’ conclusions. The best review papers give you a clear idea of what is going on in the field and where it may be headed.

What are academic journals?

This paper is then submitted to an academic journal. Examples include The Journal of Neuroscience and Nature. Academic journals are publications like newspapers—but instead of fact-checkers, journals employ peer review. The paper is sent to other professionals in the same field (peers of the authors) who scrutinize the paper and then recommend to the journal whether to publish or not.

Not every paper submitted is published. Journals publish a specific number of articles each week or month, and more prestigious journals receive more submissions. A general rule of thumb is to look at the name of the journal: the broader it is, the more submissions it receives, the more difficult to get published in that journal. For example, it may be easier to publish a paper on autism in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders than in Science.

What is the academic literature?

The academic literature refers to the collective papers that have been published on a specific topic. If your professor tasks you with conducting a review of the academic literature on concussions, you are being asked to read the relevant papers and write a summary. It is similar to writing a review article.

In high school, textbooks are the source of information for students—but in university and college, textbooks are less frequently used. Academic papers and journals should become your go-to resources for research and assignments. Becoming familiar with the basic terminology is a good first step!

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