Juan reads a paper part 2: The experience

Juan reads a paper part 2: The experience

Quantitative and qualitative scientists write, work and think differently. This division creates an intellectual rift between scientists, but we still need each other! I am a quantitative scientist, will I be able to read a qualitative paper?

I love quantitative research, because it gives me the feeling that I understand what I am doing and I can explain it clearly to anyone. On the other hand, I like qualitative research just as much as cats like water. Just thinking about analyzing a round of interviews gives me a headache. My mind imagines a scene of researchers arguing over the meaning of the words in the interview. What a nightmare! But I believe that these fears are unjustified, and I just need to read more qualitative research to get familiar with it. An opportunity for such a reading came from my colleague Thomas Franssen, who is far more acquainted with qualitative research.

Thomas and I argued about whether the university rankings producers are responsible over how the public uses these rankings (he said yes and I said no). To support his point, he suggested me to read the social science paper Rankings and Reactivity: How Public Measures Recreate Social Worlds, which just happens to contain 14,000 words, no figures or tables, and results based on interviews. When I realized this, I closed my eyes, grabbed the arms of my chair tight and let go a long sigh of frustration. After silently cursing the authors, and the world in general, I recalled that I was about to read a qualitative paper. - “After all, let’s make this a learning experience!” - I thought. I will now narrate my experience of reading this paper, but if you want to know what I took away from the paper, read my other post here.

First of all, I refused to read all 14,000 words of the paper, so I searched on the internet for reading strategies and found a video course series on study skills from the YouTube channel Crash Course. As a footnote, I was happily surprised to see that the teacher of the course was Thomas Frank, a YouTuber that I had been following since the last year. What a small world! Anyhow, I followed the course and learned three tricks to read less and understand more:

  • Have a purpose: The course suggested to know beforehand what you want to know from the paper, so I read the abstract of the paper and got interested in a method they mentioned. - “Maybe I could apply this method in my own data” - I wondered. I had imagined that the method would measure something, but, to my disgrace, the method analyzed the interviews with students. - “I will never understand social sciences” - I lamented, dishearten, and stand up for a glass of water.
  • Read the subtitles: The course suggested skimming the subtitles to get an idea of the structure of the paper. To my happy surprise, the authors had taken extra care in writing good subtitles, and I understood clearly which parts of the paper I could skip.
  • Discard paragraphs: The course suggested reading the first and last sentence of a paragraph before committing to read the full paragraph. Using this technique, I realized that about two thirds of the paragraphs that I didn’t skip yet were about context. I mean, I know that context is important, but two thirds? Later, a colleague told me that this volume of context is common in social sciences when introducing a new idea. - ”This is so different from the papers I usually read” - I grumbled, and then read the other third of the paragraphs.

After reading the paper I made a scheme of ideas based on the subtitles of the paragraph, and finally understood what was the paper all about. -”Hey, this wasn’t that hard!” - I thought, swell with pride, and wrote to Thomas about my impressions on the paper. I guess, the first step is always the hardest.

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