Reading a scientific (also known as scholarly or academic) journal article can be intimidating. The structure and style of a journal article is different from other types of writing. The terminology may be specific to a particular discipline. The research methods may be unfamiliar and difficult for the non-scientist to understand. But hang on and don’t give up! Try using these reading strategies to help you tackle the articles assigned in the preceding chapters.
We chose to include some academic journal articles in these resources because learning how to approach a journal article is an important skill for college success.
This video from Utah State University Libraries provides helpful advice on how to read a journal article.
Anatomy of a Journal Article
First, understand that a journal article is structured in a particular way and that the structure may differ depending on the discipline. For instance, social sciences articles may look a bit different from engineering articles. These are the most basic sections and components of a journal article, although they way they are named may differ by discipline and by publisher.
Title: The title of the article. Sometimes may include a lot of discipline-specific jargon.
Journal Name: Tells you which journal published the article; also provides insight into the discipline/field of study.
Authors and Affiliations: Tells you who wrote the article and with what organization or university they are affiliated.
Date of Publication: Tells you how recent the article was published.
Abstract: A high level summary of the entire article. Is the article relevant to me and my interests? Should I continue reading?
Introduction: Sets the context for the research study. Develops an argument for why the study is important and how it will fill an identified gap in the existing research literature. What is the big idea? What are the authors trying to understand?
Research Question/Hypothesis: Presents the questions that are posed and investigated by the study, or presents the researchers’ hypothesis. This section may be embedded into the Introduction, or come after a Literature Review section.
Literature Review: Some articles will include a Literature Review or Framing Literature section. This section describes relevant research studies. In social sciences articles in particular, it may be used to develop a conceptual or theoretical framework for the featured study.
Methods: Describes the overall methodology employed for the study. Also described in detail the research methods, which may include the participants and how they were recruited, the study context, data collection methods, and methods of data analysis. Do the methods seem appropriate for answering the research question(s)? Do you understand what the researchers did?
Findings/Results: Provides a summary of the findings from the study or experiment. May include charts, tables, graphs, and data visualizations. Do the results appear to answer the research question(s)?
Discussion: Provides a discussion of the findings and what they mean in relation to the research question or hypothesis, or the conceptual or theoretical framework. This section is where the authors present their interpretations of their findings. What do the results mean? Why are they important?
Conclusion: Brings the article to a close. May discuss the limitations of the study, potential sources of bias, or opportunities for further research. Do you agree with the authors’ conclusions?
Acknowledgements: This is where the authors express their gratitude to collegues, mentors, journal editors, and the organizations that funded their research.
Bibliography/References/Works Cited: List of sources used when developing the study or writing the article.
How to Read a Journal Article EFFICIENTLY
Be B.R.A.V.E. when reading a scientific journal article!
Background knowledge: Before reading the full article, skim the text very quickly. Look at the major headings and sub-headings. Look at pictures, graphs and tables. What do you recognize? What looks familiar?
Read with Purpose: Figure out your reason for reading the article. Why is it important? Why do you need to know this? How will the information help you?
Annotate: Read with a pen in hand and interact with the text. See the Annotation Tips below.
Extend Your Thinking: After you finish the reading, summarize in your own words on a piece of paper. If reflection questions are provided, respond to the prompts. Talk to a friend or parent about what you just read. Think about how it connects to what you have learned at school or read elsewhere.
Check out these additional reading tips.
Reading Tip #1: Order
Read the journal article in the following order, rather in the order in which it is presented on the screen or page:
- Results (skim)
- Methodology (skim)
Tip #2: Annotate
Annotate (mark-up) the article as you read this. You might choose to print the article and use pen or highlighters to annotate it. If reading online, you may want to take notes on a piece of paper. When annotating, it can be helpful to use symbols, such as:
Important: *or Underline/Highlight text that feels important.
Question: ? for text that is confusing that you may want to return to later. Or write down your own emerging questions in the margin.
Interesting: ! when you find something particularly interesting, insightful, or juicy.
Connections: + When you make a connection to something else you know, or have read elsewhere.
New Terms: Circle unfamiliar terms. You can return later to define them if needed.
Margin Notes: Write notes in the margins to help direct your attention back to key concepts.
Tip #3: Skim
Skim sections that go into more detail than you think you need. Skim words or terms that are highly technical or specific to the discipline that you don’t yet understand. You do not need to understand every word, just try to read for the big ideas. You can also check out the Glossary of Terms in this book’s appendix to help you develop your neural engineering vocabulary.
Keep in mind that scientists, engineers, and professors regularly come across journal articles that are difficult to read, especially when they are reading an article from a discipline other than their own area of study. Over time, everyone develops their own efficient reading strategies. You will too!
Some material adapted from Miranda Horn, Deer Park Middle School with her permission.