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MVNU Writing Guide: Understanding Sources


At some point in your college career you will come across an academic source with information that is way beyond your current understanding. However, that does not mean you should discard the source! If you use the right strategy, you can read virtually any source and understand it well enough to include it as a reference for your paper. This section of the LibGuide works step-by-step through a long and technical article to provide you with some tips that you can use for the rest of your academic career.


"This article is way too long! Look at that first sentence! There's no way I could read this whole thing."

Fear not! This guide will lead you through and by the end you'll know all about the neurological impacts of excessive alcohol consumption.

We'll start at the beginning. The abstract is a short summary of the entire paper, so if we can get through it then we will have a good idea of what to expect from the rest of it.

Let's break down the first few sentences into terms that are easier to understand.

Sentence 1: "It has not been easy for scientists to find obvious physical signs of psychiatric disorders from brain scans"

Sentence 2: Don't be afraid to google words you don't know!

  • Heterogeneity = The state of being diverse
  • Precluded = Prevented from happening

"For alcohol use disorders, there are obvious physical signs of brain damage, but currently there are no clear ways to identify alcohol-related damage in its earlier stages"

Sentence 3: "This study used a combination of imaging techniques to get more information on brain tissue"

Sentence 4: "This experiment studied the brains of rats after 1 month of alcohol consumption and again after 1 week of no alcohol consumption. Some of the rats received a treatment drug and some of them did not."

Here's the easy version of the rest of the abstract:

"This study found that even just one month of alcohol consumption was enough to leave a noticeable imprint on the rats' brains and the week of abstinence did not result in much recovery. Interestingly, the drug did also seem to subtly impact the brains as well, suggesting that certain medications could be used to assist in the treatment recovering alcoholics."

That wasn't too bad! There definitely were a some challenging words, but now that we pushed through, we know what this article is all about. At this point while researching, you would decide whether the article is a good fit for your paper. Let's assume that this article is a good fit and move on.

In most articles, the first section after the abstract is the Introduction. The introduction is usually written using easier language and provides the reader with important background information that explains why the article was written in the first place.

The first paragraph introduces the issue of alcohol abuse and explains that we currently have difficulty detecting these disorders (AUDs) at early stages; damage to the brain is more permanent when these kinds of issues are detected late.

The second paragraph is more technical but still doable, especially for Psychology and Biology majors. Here's the biggest takeaway--- there a multitude of different ways that alcohol abuse affects the brain and a single brain imaging technique on its own is not enough to adequately identify the more subtle symptoms of early AUDs.

Now let's read paragraph three. This paragraph proposes a solution to the problems from paragraphs one and two. It's very technical, so let's try and pick out the parts that are the most important for us to understand. The first sentence is important because it proposes the "multi-modal" technique using "multi-variate pattern analysis." You don't need to understand exactly what these are, just know that they involve multiple techniques and that the data from them is analyzed together.

The rest of the paragraph is very technical. Skim the technical parts and see if there are a few things that you can pick out. For instance, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson disease are both mentioned because multi-modal techniques have already been used to identify them.

Now for the last paragraph of the introduction, paragraph four. Again, pay attention to the first sentence which provides the most broad explanation of the study. This whole paragraph details what the researchers did in their experiment, so it is not necessary for you to understand everything. As long as you understand the general idea of the experiment, you can move on to the next section.

(Summary: Rats drank alcohol for a while, then the researchers scanned their brains using the new imaging technique. Some rats were given a medication after drinking the alcohol, while some were not. Finally, the rats were scanned again after a period of sobriety.)


Now, lets skip to the end. For scientific papers like this one, the findings are summarized best in the discussion. For other kinds of papers, skim through and see if you can find the section that gives the best summary of the findings. Some subjects like History or Art won't have skippable sections; however, you should always skim your article before reading it and pick out the sections that you think will have the most important information and focus most of your effort on those sections. With that in mind, let's look at the discussion section.

The first paragraph of the discussion is probably the most important one in the paper. It provides the paper's five main conclusions: 

  1. The multi-modal imaging strategy gives "robust and accurate" information about the brain.
  2. This study demonstrated that this multi-modal imaging strategy provides useful information about the effects of AUDs.
  3. AUDs, even moderate ones, have noticeable effects on brain tissue.
  4. The effects of AUDs remain in brain tissue even after the individual stops consuming alcohol.
  5. The naltrexone medicine affected the rats' recovery, suggesting that it could be used in the AUD treatment process.

Wow! It only took a few minutes, and now we know what this paper is about. Obviously, we didn't go into a lot of the details and technical terms; however, now that you understand the big ideas you can go back and successfully dig deeper into the details. Before using this source in a paper, make sure to skim the parts of the source that you didn't read in detail just in case you missed something important.