ECONOMIC & SOCIAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Productive reading
Why spend time and effort reading a particular text?
Distinguishing between support and ‘front-line’ literature
How can you identify fit-for-purpose support texts to read in full or selectively?
Advance check: suitable support literature for your identified reading purpose
How can you identify fit-for-purpose front-line texts to read in summary or in depth?
Advance check: suitable front-line literature for your identified reading purpose
Scrutinising the efficiency of your academic reading habits
How efficient are you as a reader in your academic studies?
Reading strategies: scanning, skimming and intensive reading
Taking risks with your reading time and effort
Making the most of your reading time and effort: towards an effective compromise
Scanning a short text for specific information
Skimming long texts
Writing effectively
Arguing convincingly
Mapping your field
Literature reviewing
Reviewing the literature systematically
Developing proposals
Distinguishing between support and ‘front-line’ literature 


You can make your reading as productive as possible by concentrating on those varieties of text which are likely to be most suitable for your reading purpose. Management is an applied subject with a strong concern to understand and improve practice and sometimes also policy. There can be no universal text that is fit for all purposes. For example, a textbook giving an overview of a management subject cannot include at the same time give details of all the research investigations conducted in the area. Equally a research report on a particular investigation of management practice cannot at the same time give an overview of the whole subject. So knowing which varieties of text are good for particular purposes can help you target your reading on texts that stand to offer most support with achieving your purpose.

These varieties of text comprise two forms of literature, both of which could be useful to you at particular times during your academic studies: 

  • support literature is intended primarily to help readers learn about an academic subject (such as marketing) or a relevant skill (such as good academic writing)
  • ‘front-line’ literature is intended primarily to persuade a particular audience to accept claims to knowledge about a specific aspect of an academic subject (such as research-backed claims that a new marketing approach is effective) or a practice or policy related to this subject (such as a new policy regulating the practice of marketing) 

Much support and front-line literature is available electronically through the Internet as well as on paper in a library. Putting a few keywords into a search engine will typically yield multiple websites and downloadable files. Be aware though, that the quality of texts is extremely variable, and there is no guarantee that some sources (such as individuals’ own websites, blogs, Wikipedia) are reliable. You can expect most reliability from texts that have been published in academic journals or books from the major academic publishers, because they will have been scrutinised by experienced scholars from the academic community prior to publication. Many such texts are available electronically.

You may already be familiar with several varieties of text from the support literature. All can be very useful for your academic studies. They include:  

  • textbooks - introducing you to an academic subject or to skills for carrying out academic activity
  • specialist encyclopedias and dictionaries - that you can dip into to find summary information about an aspect of a subject or specific skill that you are interested in
  • academic handbooks - summarising at the time of publication the state of knowledge in a subject, highlighting ongoing debates and identifying research agendas
  • readers - a compilation of landmark journal articles and book chapters introducing you to the development of a subject through key original texts, sometimes with overview chapters written by the editors of the collection

But few of these are texts at the forefront of today’s academic discourse. Front-line literature is. It includes academic journal articles, books, and book chapters. Their authors develop new theoretical explanations, report the latest original research, synthesise knowledge of current practice, and make statements about policy changes. The texts making up this diverse literature can be roughly divided into four types: 

  • theoretical - presenting models and theories for interpreting, explaining, or challenging practice
  • research - describing systematic enquiries into practice, and sometimes into policy
  • practice - distilling practitioners’ experience, and sometimes reporting their self-evaluations or external evaluations of practice
  • policy - proposing changes in practice desired by policy-makers, often including a negative evaluation of practice in the past and present 

Most front-line texts are easily recognisable as belonging to a particular type - as in a journal article whose authors are reporting the outcomes of their business research. But many texts contain features of more than one type of front-line literature. So the empirical investigation reported in a research report article may have been informed by a particular theory, it will have investigated an aspect of business management practice, and it may highlight implications for corporate policy. Nevertheless, it is usually possible to work out whether a front-line text is mainly about theory, research, practice or policy.

Support literature is especially good for supporting your introductory learning about a new subject or related skill. That is what it is designed for. However, you have to do more than just read texts from the support literature. You will be expected to extend your academic learning beyond the introductory stage in your writing for assessment. So you will need to engage in greater depth with selected front-line literature. This is the literature in the western tradition of academic scholarship which directly expresses the thinking of experienced management researchers at the forefront of the area of enquiry. It is where they engage in the two-way flow of academic discourse, developing, backing-up and challenging claims about what is going on, what it means, and what should be done about it. As you read and evaluate texts from the front-line literature and develop your own written argument about what you have read, you will learn how to contribute to academic discourse by doing it for yourself. 

  • Once you’ve identified your reading purpose, try asking yourself: What mix of texts from the support and front-line literature should I read to achieve my purpose?

Check what is available. Choose those texts that offer most for what you need to learn. Support literature is a great place to start, but don’t stop there. Learning to think like an experienced management researcher requires you to engage, as a novice, with the written products of experienced researchers’ thinking, and to evaluate for yourself how convincing their arguments are. For this you need front-line texts too.