How to Read Scholarly Articles
Academic papers are essentially reports that scholars write to their peers—present and future—about what they’ve done in their research, what they’ve found, and why they think it’s important. Thus, in a lot of fields they often have a structure reminiscent of the lab reports you’ve written for science classes:
- Abstract: A one-paragraph summary of the article: its purpose, methods, findings, and significance.
- Introduction: An overview of the key question or problem that the paper addresses, why it is important, and the key conclusion(s) (i.e., thesis or theses) of the paper.
- Literature review: A synthesis of all the relevant prior research (the so-called “academic literature” on the subject) that explains why the paper makes an original and important contribution to the body of knowledge.
- Data and methods: An explanation of what data or information the author(s) used and what they did with it.
- Results: A full explanation of the key findings of the study.
- Conclusion/discussion: Puts the key findings or insights from the paper into their broader context; explains why they matter.
Visit this webpage from North Carolina State University to see an example of the main components in a scholarly article.
Not all papers are so “sciencey.” For example, a historical or literary analysis doesn’t necessarily have a “data and methods” section; but they do explain and justify the research question, describe how the authors’ own points relate to those made in other relevant articles and books, develop the key insights yielded by the analysis, and conclude by explaining their significance. Some academic papers are review articles, in which the “data” are published papers and the “findings” are key insights, enduring lines of debate, and/or remaining unanswered questions.
As shown in the video above, understanding the structure of scholarly articles tells you a lot about how to find, read and use these sources:
- Find them quickly. Instead of paging through mountains of dubious web content, go right to the relevant scholarly article databases in order to quickly find the highest quality sources.
- Use the abstracts. Abstracts tell you immediately whether or not the article you’re holding is relevant or useful to the paper you’re assigned to write. You shouldn’t ever have the experience of reading the whole paper just to discover it’s not useful.
- Read strategically. Knowing the anatomy of a scholarly article tells you what you should be reading for in each section. For example, you don’t necessarily need to understand every nuance of the literature review. You can just focus on why the authors claim that their own study is distinct from the ones that came before.
- Don’t sweat the technical stuff. Not every social scientist understands the intricacies of log-linear modeling of quantitative survey data; just focus on the passages that explain the findings and their significance in plainer language.
- Use one article to find others. If you have one really good article that’s a few years old, you can use article databases to find newer articles that cited it in their own literature reviews. That immediately tells you which ones are on the same topic and offer newer findings. On the other hand, if your first source is very recent, the literature review section will describe the other papers in the same line of research. You can look them up directly.