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Reading academic articles

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"Academic texts are not meant to be read through from beginning to end."

– Anyone who's tried to read an academic text from beginning to end.

Academic literature is pitched at an ‘academic audience’ who will already have an understanding of the topic. Academic texts can be complicated and difficult to read, but you don't necessarily have to read every word of a piece of academic writing to get what you need from it. On this page we'll take a look at strategies for reading the most common form of academic literature: the academic journal article. But these strategies may also be applied to other forms of academic writing (and in some cases even to non-academic sources of information). We'll ask ourselves why we're doing the reading in the first place, before examining the typical structure(s) of an article, from abstract to conclusion, and considering the best route through. We'll also take a look at the best strategies for reading.

Journal articles

One of the most common academic sources is the journal article. Researchers publish their research in academic journals which usually cover a specific discipline. Some journals have stronger reputations and more rigorous editorial controls than others. 

Types of article

There are all sorts of different types of journal article. The article's title might make it clear what type it is, but other aspects of the article will also give you a clue.

Research / Empirical

Results of studies or experiments, written by those who conducted them. They're built around observation or experiment, and generally start with (or at least have a prominent) methodology.

Case study

Descriptions of an individual situation in detail, identify characteristics, findings, or issues, and analyse the case using relevant methodologies or theoretical frameworks.

Review

Summaries of other studies, identifying trends to draw broader conclusions. We look at these in more detail in our section on review articles.

Theoretical

Scholarly articles regarding abstract principles in a specific field of knowledge, not tied to empirical research or data. They may be predictive, and based upon an understanding of the field. They generally start with a background section or a literature review.

Applied

Real world techniques, workflows etc. This type of article is generally found in trade / professional journals which are aimed at a professional or practicing audience rather than an academic one.

Peer review

Peer review process

Most good quality journals (and even some bad ones) employ a process called peer-review whereby submitted articles are vetted by a panel of fellow experts in the field. The peer-review panel may demand extensive re-writes of an article to bring it to an acceptable standard for publication. Flaws in the methodology may be highlighted and the author will then have to address these in the text. The result should be that the published work is reliable and of a high standard, and this is usually the case (though not always, as this blog post on the problems with Peer Review explains). Many databases will let you filter to exclude work that hasn't been peer-reviewed.

Finding articles

You could read every journal that's published on your subject, but that's probably a lot of journals. Fortunately, there are databases which catalogue the contents of a selection of journals. You can search these databases to find the articles that will be of use to you.

What are we reading it for anyway?

Maybe we're reading an academic article or similar text for fun, or for our own personal enlightenment, in which case we'll probably want to savour every word of it. But more often than not there are other interests at play:

  • To update your knowledge on progress in a particular area or field of study
  • To find a solution to a specific problem
  • To understand the causes of a particular issue, problem, or situation
  • To understand certain fundamental aspects, concepts, or theories
  • To inform your own research and help you select an appropriate methodology
  • To find support for your own views and arguments
  • To impress others
  • Because the article has been assigned to you by your tutor and so you've got to read it!
Adapted from RV Subramanyam (2013):
"Art of reading a journal article: Methodically and effectively",
JOMFP 17(1), 65-70.

Why we're reading the article will inform how we go about it. If we're after a specific piece of information we just need to find that information; there's no point reading every single word.

Ask yourself:

  • Why am I reading this?
  • What do I want to get out of it?
  • What do I already know?
  • How will I know when I have read enough?

The structure of an academic article

Broadly speaking there are two main categories of academic article: empirical and theoretical. The former tends to be associated with the sciences (including social sciences), and the latter with the arts and humanities, though there may be cases where a science or social science paper is theoretical and an arts or humanities paper is empirical.

The typical sections of an article

These are the typical sections you'll find in an academic article (obviously, these are only a guide, and headings and structures may vary in practice):

Empirical paper

Abstract — a summary of the content.

Introduction — identifies the gaps in the existing knowledge, and outlines the aims of the paper.

Methodology — explains the design of the study, and what took place.

Results — explains what the outcome of the study was.

Discussion & Conclusion — interprets the results and makes recommendations based on that interpretation.

Theoretical paper

Abstract — a summary of the content.

Introduction — identifies the gaps in the existing knowledge, and outlines the aims of the paper.

Body — considers the background of the topic and any competing analyses.

Summary — considers how the various arguments relate.

Discussion & Conclusion — interprets the analysis and makes recommendations accordingly.

What to get from each section

Each of the sections can tell you some useful information. You don't need to read every section to get what you need.

Empirical paper

Abstract — a good starting point for understanding the scope and outcome.

Introduction — you can generally skip an introduction, though it may help give you some context.

Methodology — pay attention to the validity of the study design – is it appropriate?

Results — have any results been ignored?

Discussion & Conclusion — is the analysis valid?

Theoretical paper

Abstract — a good starting point for understanding the scope and outcome.

Introduction — you can generally skip an introduction, though it may help give you some context.

Body — has anything been missed?

Summary — are the arguments well founded?

Discussion & Conclusion — is the analysis valid?

The route through

You don't need to read every word of an article to get what you need from it. Academic articles are pretty-much always split up into sections, and these sections tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. Skipping around these sections (rather than reading them in order) allows you to appraise the article more quickly, helping you decide whether or not you need to read any more of it.

Title & abstract

"Let's start at the very beginning / a very good place to start"

Maria Rainer

If by 'the very beginning' Maria meant 'the title', then yes, it is a pretty decent starting point. It will give us a clue as to the type of article we're looking at, which will help determine our next steps.

The abstract is another obvious place to begin the journey. The abstract provides a summary of the article, including the key findings, so reading an abstract is a lot quicker than reading a whole article.

But be aware that the abstract will have been written by the authors of the article, and so won’t be a neutral account of the research finding. Don’t be too accepting of what is presented: make sure you think critically about what's being said. The abstract may be glossing over certain shortcomings of the article, or may be spinning a stronger outcome than is reached in the text.

The conclusion

Skip to the end. That's where all the action is! There's not really such a thing as spoilers in academic texts, so if the butler did it it's good to know from the outset. What conclusions are the authors reaching, and do they seem relevant to what you're needing?

Like the abstract, the conclusion may reflect the writers' biases, so we can't rely on it entirely. But, as with all the steps on this journey, it may help us determine whether or not we need to spend any more time reading the article.

Moving on from there...

Your next step depends largely on discipline: for an empirical (science or social science) research paper you'll want to look at the method and results to start to look at what was actually carried out, and what happened. You can then start to think about whether the conclusion being reached is valid given the approaches taken and the observations made.

In a theoretical (arts & humanities, and some social science) paper you'll probably need to pick through the body of the article and maybe focus on the summary section.

How to read an article

Where do you start when looking at academic literature? How can you successfully engage with the literature you find? This bitesized tutorial explores the structure of academic articles, shows where to look to check the validity of findings, and offers tips for navigating online texts.

Reading strategies

When you’re reading you don’t have to read everything with the same amount of care and attention. Sometimes you need to be able to read a text very quickly.

There are three different techniques for reading:

  • Scanning — looking over material quite quickly in order to pick out specific information;
  • Skimming — reading something fairly quickly to get the general idea;
  • Close reading — reading something in detail.

You'll need to use a combination of these methods when you are reading an academic text: generally, you would scan to determine the scope and relevance of the piece, skim to pick out the key facts and the parts to explore further, then read more closely to understand in more detail and think critically about what is being written.

These strategies are part of your filtering strategy before deciding what to read in more depth. They will save you time in the long run as they will help you focus your time on the most relevant texts!

Scanning

You might scan when you are...

  • ...browsing a database for texts on a specific topic;
  • ...looking for a specific word or phrase in a text;
  • ...determining the relevance of an article;
  • ...looking back over material to check something;
  • ...first looking at an article to get an idea of its shape.

Scan-reading essentially means that you know what you are looking for. You identify the chapters or sections most relevant to you and ignore the rest. You're scanning for pieces of information that will give you a general impression of it rather than trying to understand its detailed arguments.

You're mostly on the look-out for any relevant words or phrases that will help you answer whatever task you're working on. For instance, can you spot the word "orange" in the following paragraph?

Being able to spot a word by sight is a useful skill, but it's not always straightforward. Fortunately there are things to help you. A book might have an index, which might at least get you to the right page. An electronic text will let you search for a specific word or phrase. But context will also help. It might be that the word you're looking for is surrounded by similar words, or a range of words associated with that one. I might be looking for something about colour, and see reference to pigment, light, or spectra, or specific colours being called out, like red or green. I might be looking for something about fruit and come across a sentence talking about apples, grapes and plums. Try to keep this broader context in mind as you scan the page. That way, you're never really just going to be looking for a single word or orange on its own. There will normally be other clues to follow to help guide your eye.


Approaches to scanning articles:

  1. Make a note of any questions you might want to answer – this will help you focus;
  2. Pick out any relevant information from the title and abstract – Does it look like it relates to what you're wanting? If so, carry on...
  3. Flick or scroll through the article to get an understanding of its structure (the headings in the article will help you with this) – Where are certain topics covered?
  4. Scan the text for any facts, illustrations, figures, or discussion points that may be relevant – Which parts do you need to read more carefully? Which can be read quickly?
  5. Look out for specific key words. You can search an electronic text for key words and phrases using Ctrl+F / Cmd+F. If your text is a book, there might even be an index to consult. In either case, clumps of results could indicate an area where that topic is being discussed at length.

Once you've scanned a text you might feel able to reject it as irrelevant, or you may need to skim-read it to get more information.

Skimming

You might skim when you are...

  • ...jumping to specific parts such as the introduction or conclusion;
  • ...going over the whole text fairly quickly without reading every word;

Skim-reading, or speed-reading, is about reading superficially to get a gist rather than a deep understanding. You're looking to get a feel for the content and the way the topic is being discussed.

Skim-reading is easier to do if the text is in a language that's very familiar to you, because you will have more of an awareness of the conventions being employed and the parts of speech and writing that you can gloss over. Not only will there be whole sections of a text that you can pretty-much ignore, but also whole sections of paragraphs. For instance, the important sentence in this paragraph is the one right here where I announce that the important part of the paragraph might just be one sentence somewhere in the middle. The rest of the paragraph could just be a framework to hang around this point in order to stop the article from just being a list.

However, it may more often be that the important point for your purposes comes at the start of the paragraph. Very often a paragraph will declare what it's going to be about early on, and will then start to go into more detail. Maybe you'll want to do some closer reading of that detail, or maybe you won't. If the first paragraph makes it clear that this paragraph isn't going to be of much use to you, then you can probably just stop reading it. Or maybe the paragraph meanders and heads down a different route at some point in the middle. But if that's the case then it will probably end up summarising that second point towards the end of the paragraph. You might therefore want to skim-read the last sentence of a paragraph too, just in case it offers up any pithy conclusions, or indicates anything else that might've been covered in the paragraph!

For example, this paragraph is just about the 1980s TV gameshow "Treasure Hunt", which is something completely irrelevant to the topic of how to read an article. "Treasure Hunt" saw two members of the public (aided by TV newsreader Kenneth Kendall) using a library of books and tourist brochures to solve a series of five clues (provided, for the most part, by TV weather presenter Wincey Willis). These clues would generally be hidden at various tourist attractions within a specific county of the British Isles. The contestants would be in radio contact with a 'skyrunner' (Anneka Rice) who had a map and the use of a helicopter (piloted by Keith Thompson). Solving a clue would give the contestants the information they needed to direct the skyrunner (and her crew of camera operator Graham Berry and video engineer Frank Meyburgh) to the location of the next clue, and, ultimately, to the 'treasure' (a token object such as a little silver brooch). All of this was done against the clock, the contestants having only 45' to solve the clues and find the treasure. This, necessarily, required the contestants to be able to find relevant information quickly: they would have to select the right book from the shelves, and then navigate that text to find the information they needed. This, inevitably, involved a considerable amount of skim-reading. So maybe this paragraph was slightly relevant after all? No, probably not...

Skim-reading, then, is all about picking out the bits of a text that look like they need to be read, and ignoring other bits. It's about understanding the structure of a sentence or paragraph, and knowing where the important words like the verbs and nouns might be. You'll need to take in and consider the meaning of the text without reading every single word...


Approaches to skim-reading articles:

  1. Pick out the most relevant information from the title and abstract – What type of article is it? What are the concepts? What are the findings?;
  2. Scan through the article and note the headings to get an understanding of structure;
  3. Look more closely at the illustrations or figures;
  4. Read the conclusion;
  5. Read the first and last sentences in a paragraph to see whether the rest is worth reading.

After skimming, you may still decide to reject the text, or you may identify sections to read in more detail.

Close reading

You might read closely when you are...

  • ...doing background reading;
  • ...trying to get into a new or difficult topic;
  • ...examining the discussions or data presented;
  • ...following the details or the argument.

Again, close reading isn't necessarily about reading every single word of the text, but it is about reading deeply within specific sections of it to find the meaning of what the author is trying to convey. There will be parts that you will need to read more than once, as you'll need to consider the text in great detail in order to properly take in and assess what has been written.


Approaches to the close reading of articles:

  1. Focus on particular passages or a section of the text as a whole and read all of its content – your aim is to identify all the features of the text;
  2. Make notes and annotate the text as you read – note significant information and questions raised by the text;
  3. Re-read sections to improve understanding;
  4. Look up any concepts or terms that you don’t understand.

Even after deep reading like this, you may decide that an article is unsuitable. But remember, a text can be used in many ways: perhaps it's supporting evidence, or perhaps it's something to discuss; perhaps it opposes your argument but you can still respond to it and develop your own point in light of that response. Don't dismiss an article simply because it poses an inconvenience (that would be misleading through omission).

In conclusion...

Did you read every word of this page up to this point, or did you skip straight to the conclusion? Whichever approach you took, here's our summary of how to go about reading an article:

  • Come up with some questions you need the text to answer – this will help you focus;
  • Read the abstract to get an idea about what the article is about;
  • Scan the text for signs of relevance, and to get an understanding of the scope of the article – which parts might you need to read?
  • Skim through the useful parts of the article (e.g. the conclusion) to get a flavour of what's being said;
  • If there are any sections of interest, read them closely;
  • Consider the validity of the research process (method, sample size, etc.) or arguments being employed;
  • Make a note of what you find, and any questions the text raises.

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