How to Read a Journal Article in 7 Steps

How to Read a Journal Article

Journal Articles make even the top students’ eyes glaze over.

They’re boring, hard to read, and always more complicated than they need to be.

Worst of all, you’ve probably never been taught how to read a journal article! You’re just given the article and told … go on … read it!

So, in this article, I offer seven simple strategies for how to read a research paper effectively by making use of the genre’s text features.

Let’s dig in!

1. Read the Abstract First

The abstract is usually on the first page of the piece, always before the introduction. You are likely to find it indented underneath the title.

The abstract is the most important part of a journal article. It tells you whether or not you need to read the article at all.

When reading the abstract, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this relevant to my essay topic?
  • What is the key argument of this piece?
  • How is this article related to the other ones I’ve read?

You should be able to tell by the end of the abstract what the journal article is all about and whether it will be of value to you.

If your article is assigned reading, it will definitely be of value, so you’ll have to keep reading. You should still be able to jot down the key ideas the article covers and what the authors’ argument is. I give guidance on this in Point 7.

If your article is not assigned reading, feel free to make a value judgement about whether to keep or discard the article. Don’t be afraid to throw it away and look for one that’s more relevant.

2. Stop Reading the article if it Doesn’t make Sense

The first page usually provides an introduction to the article. It should orient you to the topic and the author’s stance. It goes into more detail than the abstract and should provide a compelling reason why you should or shouldn’t keep reading the piece.

At the end of the first page, ask yourself:

  • Did I understand at least 50% of what was written?
  • Is this article still relevant to me?
  • Did I jot down one key point that I can use in my essay?

You should be able to say ‘yes’ to all three of these points for the article to still be of value to you. If so, feel free to keep reading.

If the article just doesn’t make any sense to you, search for another article that will be easier to read and understand. Have a look through Google Scholar or your University’s Online Library for journal articles that might be more readable and relevant. Textbooks are also a great, more readable, alternative.

3. Scan before you Read

Scanning involves looking through an article to find the important sections to read.

Ask yourself: ‘Do I have to read it all? Which part will give me what I need?’

Maybe you have a journal article and only want to know the findings. It might therefore be worthwhile to scan through the article until you reach the ‘findings’ and ‘conclusion’ sections.

A journal article’s abstract is a brief, one-paragraph overview of the article. The abstract is designed to help you to know whether the journal article is valuable for you to read or not.

Read smart. Don’t read sections you don’t have to. Remember you’re here reading the journal article for one reason: to dig out the information you need and move on.

To scan the journal article, look through all of the article’s headings to get a general idea of what will be discussed in each section. Below is a list of the common sections you’ll expect in a journal article. The sub-headings for these sections will likely vary:

The title is self-explanatory and the easiest element to identify.
The abstract is unique to journal articles. This is a brief, one-paragraph overview of the article. The abstract is designed to help you to know whether the journal article is valuable for you to read or not. The abstract is usually on the first page of the piece, always before the introduction. You are likely to find it indented underneath the title.
The introduction also gives an overview of the piece. While the abstract explains the key arguments of the piece, the introduction is usually used to give context and a rationale to the piece. It usually also signposts what will be said in each section of the article.
Literature Review and Theoretical Framework
The literature review summarizes and analyses previous research on the topic that the author is reporting on. This is an important section for showing readers what is already known about the topic, and how the study expands on existing knowledge by introducing new ideas and information that hasn’t been discovered before.
Methodologies are important for providing the ‘recipe’ of how the research took place. The methodology answers the question ‘How did you reach your conclusions?’ This is what distinguishes research from hypothesis. Logic and reason are required in order to establish knowledge within academic research. The methodology should therefore “demonstrate the logic used to reach the conclusion” (Drew, Hardman & Hosp, 2008, p. 18).
The findings section outlines what the study found out. It is often separated into themes, outlining some of the key ideas that have emerged from the research project. This is where you finally find out what the authors actually discovered through their project. It is usually quite detailed, taking readers through the findings step-by-step.
Discussion / Conclusion
The conclusion will sum up the findings and explain how and why the findings are important, relevant, or interesting. It may explain what the implications of the findings are for practitioners, policymakers, or researchers.

4. Always read the Literature Review

The literature review section – often under the title ‘Literature Review’, ‘Background’ or ‘Context’ – will reference some important sources.

I strongly recommend you read the literature review to ensure you have a clear understanding of the background information on the topic.

What’s the Literature Review All About?

The point of the literature review is to summarize and analyze key information that is already known on the topic. In this sense, the literature review is sort of like a mini-essay on the topic. When reading the literature review, take the opportunity to steal ideas for your own essay. Make sure you paraphrase them and cite the article correctly.

For example, if you’ve been set an essay on ‘How Canadian Television Advertisements Sell Beer’, and your journal article is titled ‘Canadian Advertising in the age of Multiculturalism’, you’re likely to find that the literature review will give you a lot of information about Canadian television advertisements.

Mine that information! See what key sources this expert is using and use those same sources in your essay. See what this expert says are the most important points to remember about the topic and paraphrase those points for your essay, too.

In other words, look at reading a journal article as an opportunity to mine ideas for your own writing.

When reading the literature review, see if you can identify several key points that will be worthwhile for your own essay. In the literature review section, I usually try to jot down four key points and four key sources that I will reference in my own essay.

5. You Probably Don’t want to read the Methodology

You’re reading a journal article to find out the answers to a question. The methodology section explains how the answers we gathered.

Methodologies are very important if you’re writing a critical literature review at the Master’s level. They’re also vital if you’re trying to assess the reliability of a source. But for most students trying to quickly gather some facts on a topic, they’re a waste of your time.

If a journal article has made it to publication in a journal article, its methodology will have already been evaluated by two anonymous experts and a journal editor. These people are much smarter than you and they gave it the green light.

You can trust that a journal article’s methodology is sound.

Reading the methodology is usually a waste of your time. Skip it unless you feel there’s a good reason to find out how the study took place. Otherwise, skip it.

6. Jump to the Conclusion

What’s in a Journal Article Conclusion?

Journal article conclusions are just like your own essay conclusion. They usually summarize the article’s findings, weaknesses, and implications (see: examples of essay conclusions).

When reading an article to gather new information and key ideas for an essay, the findings are what you’re really looking for.

Once you’ve read the abstract and introduction, taken some notes on the article’s main arguments, and mined a few key points from the literature review, skip the next few pages and leap to the conclusion.

I know, I’m going to get a million emails from angry doctoral students and professors telling me I’m doing a disservice to academia. They’ll tell me I’m teaching students to take shortcuts. They’ll tell me I’m not taking research seriously enough.

But heck, this is a strategy for success and study productivity. Read journal articles to mine key information then move the heck on to writing your essay. No more, no less.

Get what you want, and get out.

7. If it’s a Set Reading, Take Notes – Even if you Don’t Understand it

Getting ahead at university is about showing your teacher you deserve a good mark.

You need to convince your teacher that you’re smart, you know the rules, and you deeply understand the content.

One way to do this is to make sure you turn up to class with questions and comments.

Not understanding the article is no excuse. If you’ve set a journal article to read, make sure you read it. Use the strategies above to save you time, but make sure you come to class with some notes.

What to do if a Journal Article Doesn’t Make Sense

Write down what you don’t understand and why you don’t understand it. You should do three things:

Notes to Take when the Article doesn’t make Sense

  • Write down what you think the author is saying (make an educated guess);
  • Write down three words that didn’t make sense to you;
  • Highlight one sentence that confused you.

When it comes time for you to talk in class, don’t just stare at the teacher like a deer in headlights. Tell your teacher what you think you understood, but also be honest, say:

“I didn’t really understand what the article was about, but based on the abstract I think were saying [X]. One thing that confused me was the language they used. They kept using [X] word and I didn’t really know what it meant. Like in this sentence: [Read out a confusing sentence]. Could you explain it for me maybe?”

Your teacher will give you brownie points for having made the effort to read the piece, and coming to class with the intention of getting clarification.

The Difference between a Journal and a Journal Article

Often students mix up the phrase ‘journal’ with ‘journal article’.

The journal is the booklet itself that contains multiple articles. The article is just one article within a journal.

It’s a bit like the difference between a magazine and a magazine article.

1. Journals are…

An academic ‘journal’ is a publication where scholars publish their research. It is very similar to a magazine.

There are several issues published per year and they are usually available in hard copy or online. In hard copy, it arrives just like a magazine and academics read it to find out about the newest research in their field.

2. Journal Articles are…

Inside the journal are usually multiple articles. Again, this is just like a magazine.

When you open a magazine there will be a table of contents listing what articles are inside and you can flick to the article you would like to read.

Here’s a picture of how an Edition of a Journal might look:

The Stucture of an Academic Journal

So, when talking about a journal article in your work, it would be correct to say “In this journal article, …” but incorrect to say “In this journal, …”

Why do I need to Reference Journal Articles in my Essays?

Answer: Journal articles are the most Credible Scholarly Sources!

This is because journal articles have such high journalistic standards. Not any old person can publish something in a journal article. Only the best authors can … and then, only after a lot of checks for accuracy and ‘scholarly rigor’!

In fact, 80% of all articles submitted to journals are rejected!

How are Articles published in Journals?

Here’s the process for how journal articles are published:

  1. A researcher completes their research and writes an article about it;
  2. The researcher submits their article to a journal;
  3. The article is sent to two experts (‘peers’) on the topic to assess its quality;
  4. The peers provide recommendations to accept, improve or reject the article.

The experts can recommend:

  • Publish without changes (approx. 3% of all submissions)
  • Publish with minor changes (approx. 7% of all submissions)
  • Publish the following major changes (approx. 10% of all submissions)
  • Reject (approx. 80% of all submissions)

Only the best articles’ work will make it through the peer review process. This process of “peer review” is seen as the gold standard for quality.

Summing Up

You will need to know how to read a journal article in order to succeed at university. Many students find it tough. But, with a bit of patience, perseverance, and the strategies listed here you can do it!

To sum it all up, here’s one last look at how to read a journal article:

How to Read a Journal Article in 7 Simple Steps:

  1. Read the Abstract to get the key arguments
  2. Get a New Article if it doesn’t make sense
  3. Scan the article, don’t read every word
  4. Use the Literature Review to steal ideas for your essay
  5. Skip the Methodology unless you’re studying methodologies
  6. Jump to the Conclusion to get a summary of findings and relevance
  7. Take Notes on the key points you understand
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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