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INST 3800: International Service-Learning (Beatrice Guenther): How to Read Journal Articles

How to Read a Scholarly Article

WHAT AN ARTICLE USUALLY LOOKS LIKE 

There will be variations, but this is the basic anatomy of a scholarly article.

HOW & WHEN TO READ
Read the abstract (summary) first to make sure the article covers what you're looking for.  It's only a paragraph long usually, but contains a lot of information.  Do not quote, summarize, or paraphrase from the abstract.  Dig deeper. 
Skim the introduction and literature review (past studies here) briefly.  If the article is very important to your topic, go back and review the literature carefully to identify other research findings. Don't cite this part! That's not a hard rule, but it's where most undergraduates go wrong. This is where previous research is being discussed. If you cite from here you will likely be doing two things wrong--you will be citing information third hand (scholarly hearsay) and you will be missing the key points of the article. Those come later.
Methodology sections are very complex and, depending on your area of study, may not be easy to understand. Quickly skim the methodology section to get an idea of what kind of research was conducted and keep an eye out for problematic research (small studies, biased research questions, etc.) You may also want to go back and read this section more carefully if you are conducting your own research.
Skim or read the results. This sounds like it would be the most important part of the article, but the results section is often an in-depth analysis that may be as complicated as the methodology. Look at the tables and graphs and try to get a sense of the findings. Don't get too bogged down in understanding every finding.
Carefully read the discussion/conclusion sections. This is where the author(s) discuss what they found and why it's important.  This is likely where you will find most information that you will want to summarize, cite, or paraphrase. Sometimes after reading the abstract, I skip straight ahead to this section and go back to the earlier information.
Skim or refer back to the reference list if you need to find sources discussed in the article. Skim the reference list if you need more sources.  Refer back to it if you read something interesting that is cited in the article.

 

Images used under a CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 from Capella University