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How to Summarize a Paper: Step-by-Step Guide

Updated on March 22, 2024StudentsWriting Tips

If you’ve ever written (or read!) a research paper, you know they are long. And you also know it’s not always realistic to read every research paper that pertains to your work or field of study. This is why many people turn to research paper summaries.

As a student, you might be wondering how to summarize a paper effectively. As with any other kind of summary, the key to summarizing a research paper is keeping it concise, objective, and focused on the original paper’s main points rather than its details.

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What is a research paper summary?

A research paper summary is a short overview of a research paper. Generally, a research paper summary is about 300–400 words long, though with longer papers, they’re usually no more than 10 percent the length of the original paper.

Research paper summaries play an important role in academia. Because research papers can be quite long and dense, often ranging between fifteen and twenty-five pages, it just isn’t always efficient for everybody to read the whole thing. This is where summaries come in—when readers and collaborators need to know a paper’s key points but not necessarily all its details, a summary brings them up to speed.

You’ll find research paper summaries in a variety of documents, such as literature reviews and academic journals. A paper’s abstract is a specific type of summary that’s often part of a research paper. It’s not uncommon for individuals to read a paper’s summary for their own understanding or to prepare for academic discussions about the paper’s subject.

When you write a research paper summary, be sure to summarize, not paraphrase. Paraphrasing, or presenting a shortened version of the text verbatim, is often confused with summarizing. Other common mistakes include oversimplifying the paper’s subject, failing to properly credit the paper’s author, and including personal opinions, all of which we’ll discuss further in a moment.

Understanding research paper summarization

Whether it’s for a news article, book, case study, research paper, or any other type of writing, a summary is a concise overview that highlights the original’s main points. The difference between a research paper summary and other types of summary is its source material.

Summarizing a paper effectively is an important skill to develop as a student. If you pursue an advanced degree, a career in academia, or a scientific career, you will likely continue to use this skill regularly because academic and scientific papers can be long, dense, and complex.

When you’re doing research or searching for academic sources to cite, summaries make it easy to quickly discern which papers are relevant to your work and which aren’t. When you summarize academic papers, you’re helping other researchers navigate these papers for themselves. You also make it easier to discuss papers with collaborators, especially through written communication like email.

Preparing to summarize a research paper

Before you start writing a research paper summary, it’s important that you read the paper in its entirety and understand its purpose, methodology, results, and conclusions. If you’re summarizing your own research paper, this is easy—you’re the one who did the research!

However, if you’re summarizing somebody else’s work, this step can take some time. This is especially true when the paper is from a different research field than yours. Before diving into the paper, read its abstract, introduction, and conclusion. These sections include the paper’s thesis statement and overviews of the work, which present key information like:

  • The researcher’s hypothesis
  • How the research was conducted
  • When it was conducted
  • The results of the research
  • Findings from the research

Take notes on these subjects to guide your understanding as you read the paper itself. Don’t skip this latter part—although your summary is essentially a highlight reel of the paper, fully comprehending all of its components positions you to write a stronger summary.

Identify the research paper’s structure

As you read the research paper, you’ll find context for the main points in its structure. Typically, a research paper begins with an introduction, followed by an explanation of the research methodology used, the results, and a conclusion section. You’ll find the paper’s thesis statement in its introduction, which should act as the foundation for your summary. In other words, the other points you include, such as important details about the research and an explanation of its findings, should tie back to the thesis statement in an obvious way.

Understanding the author’s research question, the hypothesis they tested, and the theoretical framework they worked in can help you determine the key points to include in your summary. In fact, they could even be the key points in your summary.

Steps to summarize a research paper effectively

With a research paper summary, it’s important to include the paper’s highlights. These generally include:

  • Data collected
  • Research question
  • Purpose of the research
  • Findings

Although it may be tempting to include your interpretations or opinions about the implications of the data, don’t. Like any other piece of academic writing, a research paper summary needs to be objective.

With your notes from the paper, it can be helpful to write an outline before you write your summary. In an outline, you can organize the paper’s key points and determine where to include each piece of supporting evidence. You can also see the summary’s flow through the outline structure, which can make it easier to write it.

Be sure to include citations where necessary, including citations for any generative AI assistance you used. Proper citations in your work are important for maintaining academic integrity and can help you avoid plagiarism. Cite any time you include specific data, a direct quote from the original, or a direct quote from generative AI.

Lastly, make sure the writing is in your own words. In this regard, summarizing research papers can be uniquely challenging because they often deal with complex, jargon-heavy subjects that you might not be well-versed in enough to discuss without borrowing from the experts. To handle this, try explaining the subject in the most basic terms possible. Pretend you’re explaining it to somebody who has no experience with the subject and write down a few different versions of your explanation. Opt for plain language, not jargon; when jargon cannot be avoided, find a way to define it through context or a brief explanation. This will likely result in a somewhat clunky first draft, but don’t worry—you’ll polish it up through the revision process.

Tips for effective research paper summaries

When you’re summarizing a research paper, it’s important that you maintain the same objective, academic tone the author used in their work. Though you shouldn’t aim to mirror their voice, your summary should be free of personal bias and use the type of vocabulary found in academic works.

Your summary also shouldn’t be long. Keep it below four hundred words, or if you’re summarizing a fairly long research paper, about 10 percent of the original’s word count.

Avoid plagiarism by citing relevant sources when necessary. For example, you might need to cite the author of the original paper by name in your summary or the name of an author whose work the original cites. Similarly, do not simply repurpose the original author’s words as your own—this is plagiarism.

Example of a research paper summary

See a summary of a research paper example below. Keep in mind that, while this is one example of a research paper summary, ultimately the format of the summary should be tailored to suit the specific context and purpose of the research paper while effectively communicating the study’s main points and contributions.

This research paper conducts a comparative analysis of the basketball careers and legacies of Michael Jordan and LeBron James, two of the most prominent figures in the history of the NBA. Through an examination of their respective achievements, accolades, and contributions both on and off the court, this paper aims to provide insights into the ongoing debate surrounding their status as the greatest basketball player of all time. The paper begins by outlining Jordan’s unparalleled success during his career, including his six NBA Championships, Olympic gold medals, and numerous NBA All-Star Game appearances. Additionally, Jordan’s lasting impact on the sport of basketball is highlighted through his records and achievements. Furthermore, the paper examines James’s achievements outside of basketball, such as his roles in film and his historic financial milestone. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion on the enduring question of who is the better player, offering arguments in favor of Jordan based on his unparalleled impact on the game and cultural significance.

Tools and resources for summarizing research papers

Using Grammarly’s free summarizing tool can make summarizing research papers easy. You can also use Grammarly’s free citation generator and plagiarism checker to ensure you don’t inadvertently plagiarize the paper or any others you cite in your work.

Research paper summarization FAQs

What is summarization?

Summarization is the process through which a writer condenses a research paper (or other text) into a short overview of the original.

How do I ensure my paper summarization is unbiased and objective?

To ensure your paper summary is unbiased and objective, write it using neutral, professional language. Do not include any of your own interpretations or opinions of the original or its topic; just note its thesis statement and any other relevant points.

How do I avoid plagiarism when summarizing?

Avoid plagiarism when summarizing a research paper by writing your own words rather than restating the original words and citing the original’s title and/or author any time you reference specific data or points from it. Use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker to easily detect plagiarism in your text.

How can I use AI to summarize papers?

Grammarly’s free AI summarization tool can make it easier to summarize papers. Paste the text you’d like to summarize into the field, then instantly generate an accurate summary.

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