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CMST& 101: Introduction to Communication, with Bridget Sutherland: Reading & Understanding Academic Articles

Approaching an academic article

Scholarly articles are written by experts in a specific discipline.  They can be dense and difficult to understand.  When you read a scholarly article, remember to:

* Focus on the information in the article that is relevant to your question.  Skim through the parts that are not useful.

* Think critically about everything you read. Your thoughts, judgments and conclusions are important and will form the basis for your own thesis.

Here are some strategies you can use to help you read and understand an article without getting overwhelmed.

Reading the article

Know the structure

Most scholarly articles follow a specific format and have the following sections

Abstract – A quick summary of the entire article.

Introduction – The purpose of the study, including a review of previous research that impacts the current question.

Methodology – How they did the research.

Results – The data from the study. Often presented with charts, graphs, or other visual representations.

Discussion – The meaning of the results and whether it proved or disproved the original thesis.

Conclusion – What was learned, discussed in more straightforward language, along with future directions for research.

References – The research the authors consulted to inform their own thoughts and design their study.

For a visual breakdown, click on the link below:

Follow these steps:

When you read a journal article, you will find the most important information is found on the "outside" of the the article:  Abstract, Introduction, the Discussion, and the Conclusion. These sections are usually in simpler, more direct language, and speak clearly to the purpose of the study, what the results were, and possible implications of the findings.  The inside - the Methodology and the Results - are important because they speak to the validity of results but, for your purposes, do not necessarily shed light on the context and overall research question. 

* Read the Abstract and Conclusion first.  These two sections have the main points and will give you an overview and help you determine if the article has information relevant and important to your research. 

* If you find information in the Abstract and Conclusion that is important, read the Introduction.  This section will give you a deeper understanding of the context of the research.  It will help you understand what the author wants to know and what is already known.

* Next, read the Discussion section of the paper. Focus on the first and last paragraphs. What are the major findings? Are these results relevant for you? How do they relate to the field as a whole? Do you agree with the logic of the conclusions? What further or follow-up studies do the researchers recommend?

If you follow the steps above, a careful reading of the Introduction, Discussion and Conclusion should provide you with the information you need to understand the purpose and findings of the study. At this point, you can go back to the middle sections - the Methodology and Results - and all the data, charts, and graphs will likely make more sense. 

Understanding the article

Know the author

* To understand and summarize an article, it is helpful to understand the author(s).  To do this, look for the following information:

* Look at the name of the journal

* Look at the names, titles, and affiliations (universities) of the authors

* Look at the purpose of the article

Take notes

* Take notes as you read each section. Write down any questions and parts you don't understand.  Use a textbook or encyclopedia to help make this clearer. Note terms you aren't familiar with and look them up in a subject-specific dictionary.

* Pay attention to the section you are reading since each has a specific purpose.

* Summarize your notes by looking for main points.

* Highlight important quotes or terms

Ask questions

Identify the claim. What did the researchers set out to prove? (You will usually find this in the Abstract and the Introduction.) It should also articulate the context, or why the researchers are studying this specific subject. Is there a gap in our knowledge? New information in the field? A controversy in need of some clarifying facts?

Determine the scope. Who are the subjects of the study and what are their characteristics – geography, gender, age, ethnicity, etc. What was the sample size?

Evaluate the method. How did the researchers test their subjects?

Examine the results. Were they significant? If so, what does this indicate about the hypothesis?

Find the gaps. What didn't the researchers study? What might be the next logical follow-up to this research? Did the researchers identify any shortcomings of the study itself? If there is an opposing viewpoint or contradictory information, was this acknowledged and addressed head on? How might any problems with the study be avoided in future research?

[Adapted from "Reading for Meaning" from Fitzburg State University]