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How to Read an Academic Journal Article

How to Read an Article

How you read an academic journal article depends on why you are reading it, or where you are in your own research. Rather than reading the whole thing from beginning to end, you can save time and effort by focusing on the parts relevant to your needs at the time, and skim or skip other parts. If you approach your reading strategically, you can read a lot without actually reading all that much. You should end up reading more abstracts than articles, skimming more articles than you read, and reading more articles than you cite.

Consider why and when you are reading:

Why: Are you constructing an original experiment of your own? Building on the work of others to construct your own argument? Writing a critical or analytical review of work done on a topic? Looking for a methodology or a theoretical approach for your own study?

When: Are you new to the topic? Formulating ideas for your own research? Evaluating articles to select the best ones to use? Writing up your results?

In general, your research and reading will be in three stages:

Search – Familiarize yourself with a topic and the work done on that topic.

Select – Pick the articles most likely to be useful for your own project.

Study – In-depth analysis of content you will be using in your own project.

But note that these are not exclusive steps. While searching, you may want to jump right into an in-depth reading of a particularly interesting article. While studying your selected articles, you may think of more ideas you want to find articles about.

non-Standard – Articles in humanities often look different from most science and social science articles, so, though the general strategies for reading are the same, specifics can vary and what to look for may be different, so use this section below for how to apply the general strategies to read humanities articles.

Stages of Reading an Academic Journal Article

At this stage, you are casting a broad net to find many possibly relevant articles.

Think of keywords to describe your idea for a topic or your proposed hypothesis. Use OneSearch or select an appropriate subject database and try different combinations of keywords. 

Before even retrieving any articles, read titles, abstracts, and keywords in your search results. Find the broad questions concerning the topic: what is being studied, what is being found, what are the current controversies, how has research on the topic changed and developed over time, what language do researchers use? Look for more terms to use for more and better focused searches.

Look for review articles (the word ‘review’ is usually in the title) on the topic. If you find any, read them first: they will give you a systematic overview of work done on the topic, and list possible sources you can use.

After reading enough abstracts to get a broad overview of what’s out there, pick the most interesting articles based on titles and abstracts.

But don’t read those articles start to finish. Just read the introduction and especially the literature review section (usually part of the Introduction, but sometimes in a separate section following the introduction). The introduction explains the purpose and the broader context of the study, and the literature review provides a brief systematic summary of what others have published on the article’s topic to show how this study relates to other work on the topic.

Then scan the bibliography to see who they are citing. If any titles look especially interesting, look up those articles. Note if the same articles or authors keep showing up in lots of bibliographies – these are likely key sources for the topic.

Use what you learn during the ‘search’ phase to revise/refine your topic, research question, or hypothesis, and also for more searching.

After reading enough abstracts to get a broad overview of what’s out there, use those abstracts to pick the articles potentially most useful for your project. But, again, don't read them from start to finish. At this point, you want to narrow down the potentially most interesting articles to the actually most interesting which will be worth a lot of time and effort to focus on.

Read (or re-read) the introduction, focusing on the specific purpose of the study: what question(s) is it trying to answer? What is the main argument and hypothesis? What is unique about this study, what does it contribute to existing knowledge? And, does this matter for your project?

Next, read the discussion and conclusion sections. Now that you have used your initial searching phase to construct a good general mental framework for the topic, you can better recognize the significance of an article's conclusions, and better grasp the author's discussion of the findings. You are looking to answer the questions: what does this study mean and why is it important? Also, is it important for your project?

Somewhere in the discussion or conclusion section, the author should address the limitations of the study, i.e. not just what can be concluded but what cannot be concluded, along with any potential weaknesses of the methodology or results for supporting the conclusions. This can help you judge how useful the article will be for your project. In addition, authors usually point out new further questions resulting from the current study. You can use this part to come up with ideas for your own project to explore.

At this point, you are most likely not interested in the contents of the methodology or results section, at least not enough to read them carefully, but they may be worth quickly skimming, especially if you know of something specific to look for. For example, if you have a particular methodology in mind for your own study, you can see whether others have used that methodology. If you know you will need data of a particular type, you can check to see if it is included. In fact, if you are, for example, investigating a particular methodology you want to use, you may want to search specifically for studies using that methodology, even if they are not about a related topic; in that case, you would be interested only in the methodology section of a paper.

Now you can select the best articles from your scanning and skimming for careful study.

On this reading, skip the abstract and introduction and go straight to the methodology section. Read it with at least enough attention to understand how they carried out the study. If it is a methodology you want to use, read it with even more care, enough to be able to apply the methodology to your study (you may need to consult other sources with more extensive instructions on the methodology; if so, see if the article cites such sources). 

Next, read the results section closely and carefully. Before you go on to read the authors' discussion and conclusions, do your own analysis of the results. You can use their method of analysis or apply another appropriate method for analyzing the type of results generated by the study and reported in the article. What can you conclude, and not conclude, from your analysis of the results?

Now, carefully and critically read the authors' discussion and conclusion in conjunction with the methodology and results. Consider, for example, whether their methodology is appropriate for what they are trying to establish (e.g., sample size and selection, variables, procedures, equipment). Are the data presented clearly, and do the data make sense given their methodology? Are their analyses and arguments supported by the data? Have they missed any confounding variables? Are the results reliable (same results over time) and valid (measure what it is supposed to measure)? The specific questions you ask will depend on the type of study, but be as rigorous as you can in your critique.

Also consider: how well do their conclusions match yours?

Read through the bibliography to see if there are any significant or interesting looking titles you didn’t find in earlier searches.

By now, you should know the article well enough to quickly scan through it and whatever notes you have taken to find relevant and important parts to focus on and use as you work on your project.

Research in the humanities is different from scientific research, so the format of journal articles is also often different. Scientists typically conduct experiments on or observations of some part of the natural world, whereas humanists analyze the meanings of human creations. Social scientists studying the social world typically do experimental or observational research but may do analytical research, and sometimes both.

Humanities (and some social science) articles are thus more typically in the form of essays rather than reports of experiments or observations. Their goal is to establish a point or defend a thesis by logical argumentation and analysis of textual etc. evidence. Humanities articles are also typically referred to as “secondary literature” which critically analyzes primary sources (artistic creations or original records of the object, event, phenomenon, etc., being studied), whereas science and most social science articles are referred to as “primary literature” which present the authors’ original analysis of the data (experimental results, field measurements, surveys, etc.) which they collected or created.

Without an experiment to report, a humanities article will not have sections for experimental methods and results, though it will often at least briefly discuss the analytical method(s) the author used. It will typically have:

  • An introduction posing a question to be answered or a problem to be addressed. Generally, this includes a literature review putting the question in context by pointing out a problem or gap in previous explanations or interpretations. Then the article states the thesis it will argue for. You may find a single sentence stating the thesis, but the thesis is often described over several sentences or a paragraph or two.
  • A discussion presenting a detailed analysis of evidence from primary sources used to build an argument to support the thesis.  
  • A conclusion to summarize the results of the analysis and explain the significance of the argument. Limitations and qualifications of arguments, or interesting observations not central to the argument, are often presented in footnotes here and through the discussion.
  • A bibliography listing sources used.

But the sections may not be labeled that way, or there may be many sections or sub-sections labeling different aspects of the analysis or steps of the argument presented. Also, the introduction, discussion, and conclusion can blend into each other rather than being separate sections. So in general, searching for, selecting, and studying humanities articles is not as systematic as for science and most social science articles. Here are some modifications of the standard steps:

Search: Humanities articles often do not include abstracts, so you cannot always rely only on what is presented in the database you are searching to judge whether it is worth retrieving the full article. If there is no abstract, there may at least be subject tags in the database record, but you may need to open the full article and scan the introductory section to get a better idea of what the article is about and to get more ideas for terms to search.

You may find review articles (the phrase “literature review” or “review of the literature” is usually in the title), but these are not as common in humanities. 

Select: Quickly page through the article to see how it is structured. This is easier if there are many labelled sections and sub-sections, but you may need to skim around in the first and last pages of the article to find where the introductory thesis and resulting conclusions are explicated. Skim/read the introduction and conclusion enough to determine whether the article as a whole is relevant to your project, or scan the full article to see whether it includes topics significant to your project.  

Study: Start with a relatively quick skim/read through the full article, noting the general structure of the argument: what is it using for evidence, how is it analyzing that evidence and connecting the pieces into an argument, etc. Now you can conduct a close reading of the article and its argument to see how the details fit, and analyze how well the argument supports the thesis. Or, if you are interested only in one or a few topics covered in the article, you know what sections to focus on for a close reading. Also, read the footnotes in any section of the article relevant to your project.