What’s the evidence? How to Critically Examine Text

When reading a journal article or book, it is important to evaluate the author’s arguments rather than simply accepting them as valid. You should ask yourself: what is the evidence that supports particular statements? Passionate emotions, intuition, deep personal beliefs, and allegiance to particular authorities or “schools of thought” are not evidence; they are sources of bias in thinking. Evidence may include interview data, measurements of observable phenomena or events, the results of carefully structured experiments, surveys of public opinion, photographic evidence, and many other forms.

Some important questions to ask while reading include:

  • What evidence does the author use to support assertions and interpretations?
  • Is the type of evidence offered adequate to support the author’s assertions?
  • Is the author making any questionable assumptions?
  • Are the overall conclusions drawn from the evidence appropriate?
  • If comparisons are used, are they appropriate?
  • Does the author appear to be biased in any way? If so, what are those biases?
  • Based on the evidence presented, could you tell a completely different story or come to different conclusions?
  • When references are cited, are they from credible scholarly sources?

How does one know if an author might be biased? If an author states that most citizens of a particular country dislike the country’s leader, but their evidence consists of interviews with five citizens, then their “sample size” is too small to provide adequate evidence. Even if the author has interviewed a large number of citizens, it would be helpful to know that participants were not asked leading questions, as this biases the data. Additionally, if we learn that an author is a member of a rival political party that has openly denounced the leader, then we have identified a potential source of bias. However, bias should not be assumed on this basis. The evidence offered may be sound.

Learning to look for the evidence upon which particular assertions are made and to critically evaluate this evidence is useful not only in developing critical reading skills; it also helps your own writing become more evidence-based and thus more sound and convincing.

Break It Down: Getting to the Main Points of Books and Articles Quickly

The amount of required reading you encounter as a university student can sometimes seem overwhelming. However, don’t despair, as there are things you can do to make the reading process more efficient and increase your understanding of the literature. For example, don’t try to read articles or books from beginning to end if your time is limited. Instead, focus on key sections which reveal the main ideas, arguments and supporting evidence. Start with determining the topic or focus of the research. This should be discernable from the title, with more detail found in the article abstract. A good abstract will provide you with an overview of the work including the purpose, aims, methodology, results and conclusions of a study. The title, back cover, and table of contents will reveal the focus of books. Additionally, consider reading academic reviews of books.

Turn to the introduction of an article or book for an understanding of the rationale, why the work is important, and the research questions to be answered. From here you may want to explore the summary and conclusions sections, which usually provide answers to the research questions and a discussion of the wider implications of the research and possible recommendations. You can always return to specific sections of the reading for clarification of important points if needed.

Be sure to annotate the text as you read. This can be done directly on the page or with sticky notes if you’re using a library book and digital sticky notes for PDFs. Record any questions or things that are not clear from the readings. Your annotations can be used to create summaries for each reading which will prove useful to you during class discussions and when writing essays or other documents. You may want to use mind maps for your initial summaries if that helps you to better organize your thoughts.  See our article on mind maps for more information.

Create a summary sheet for each reading and include all citation information (e.g., title, author, date of publication, journal or publishing house). Remember to use quotations marks around verbatim text that you quote and include page numbers for direct quotes and paraphrased ideas.  The summary sheet can also include any arguments for or against the claims of the author.  These may be arguments that you have thought of while reading the text as well as arguments posed by other authors that you have read.

The contribution of your thoughts, questions and arguments can be used to stimulate class discussions and to demonstrate your understanding and thoughtful reading of the literature. It also provides an opportunity for you to receive feedback on your comments from classmates and professors and this contributes to your understanding of and engagement with the literature. For more information on reading skills and note-taking, visit the Oxford University Research/Library skills page.