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*Research 101

Reading Journal Articles

Journal articles are intended to convey the results of research done by experts to other experts or practitioners in a field. That means that they are usually written with specialized terminology, include many references to prior research, and can be dense and difficult to read for students. This page will provide definitions and reading strategies for the three main types of journal articles:

  1. Scientific articles
  2. Analysis articles
  3. Review articles

Explore Parts of a Scientific Journal Article

This sample journal article shows the typical format and sections associated with a scientific article. Click the purple + buttons to learn about each section.

Reading Scientific Articles

Download a PDF with all the steps for reading a scientific article

A scientific journal article is one that follows the scientific method. The researchers have something they want to investigate, so they perform an experiment and record the results. Even though the word science is part of the description, these articles are not limited to science fields—you will find scientific journal articles in many fields, including business, education, social sciences, health, and more.

Most scientific journal articles follow the same format with the same headings, often called IMRaD. This stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. You can look at certain sections to pick out the main ideas and key findings.

This process guides you through a quick method to understand the key points of a scientific journal article and design a reading strategy. Click through to see each step.

View the full scientific article from the example

Screenshot of article:

1. Read the Title

First, look at the title of the article to start to determine what the article will be about.

'Check Your Selfie before You Wreck Your Selfie': Personality ratings of Instagram users as a function of self-image posts

2. Read the Abstract

Now, read the abstract and see if you can identify the following: 

  • The main problem or question the article addresses
  • The author’s approach (how they did the work to enable them to write the article)
  • The author’s conclusions
  • Why people should care about the work

At this point, you may decide that an article is not relevant to your research, and that's okay! The abstract provides the first step in understanding the topic an article investigates and how it can be relevant to your own research. APA has a guide to Reading and Understanding Abstracts.

Abstract: This study considered the relation between self-image posts (i.e., selfies, posies) on Instagram and the personality and self-perception attributions made by unfamiliar perceivers based on those posts. Phase 1 involved 30 undergraduates who completed self-report inventories and whose Instagram posts were coded and then screenshot for the second phase. Phase 2 included 119 undergraduates from a different university. Phase 2 participants (perceivers) rated Phase 1 participants (targets) on 13 attributes (e.g., self-absorption, low self-esteem, extraversion, successfulness) based on these screenshots. Targets who posted more selfies were rated more negatively (e.g., more lonely, less successful). Although self-image posts on social media may not be clearly indicative of personality/self-perception, they may be cues for how the depicted person is perceived by others.

3. Read the Introduction

Next, read the introduction. The introduction serves the same function as the abstract but with more details. Don’t skim through the introduction in order to get to the “meat” of the text. In fact, do the opposite! Take time to understand the introduction because it could summarize the whole piece, present the main idea, tell us why we should care, and may even offer a road map for the rest of the article. Sometimes the introduction is obviously labeled “Introduction,” but sometimes it's not. See if you can find it!

1. Introduction The personality and interpersonal factors underlying social media displays continue to capture the attention of the scientific community and society at-large. A presumption is often made that personality variables predict the extent to which a social media user will engage in certain behaviors (e.g., frequent status updates, hostile Tweets, posts of selfies). Perhaps no single social media behavior has generated more interest concerning personality correlates than the display of self-images, particularly selfies, on popular social media platforms. Much of this research has focused on the extent to which posting selfies on social media is reflective of one’s exhibitionism specifically or narcissism more broadly (e.g., Barry et al., 2017, Fox and Rooney, 2015, McCain et al., 2016, Sorokowska et al., 2016). In this way, the designs of most studies on the personality correlates of social media behaviors are aligned with Coconstruction Theory (Underwood & Ehrenreich, 2017), which posits that an individual’s social media posts are consistent with the personality attributes he/she exhibits offline.

4. Skip to the Discussion and/or Conclusion Sections

This might seem counter-intuitive, but now you can skip toward the end of the paper and look at the discussion section and the conclusion. The discussion section will usually put the results in context—what does it mean? What can we start to determine? What patterns are there? The final conclusion, then, is the final summary of what was learned from the study. Even though that information was included in the abstract, even a slight re-phrasing can help you understand the author’s arguments in an important, new way. Note: some articles may not have a separate conclusion section.

4. Discussion The primary aim of the present study was to investigate the extent to which self-image posts from active Instagram accounts were related to personality and self-perception attributions on the part of unfamiliar others. This study represents a meaningful extension of prior research (a) by using cues from real Instagram accounts rather than focusing on experimental manipulations or judgments of self-images in a lab setting (e.g., Bradley et al., 2017, Re et al., 2016); (b) by allowing perceivers to rate targets in the context of all recent Instagram posts rather than selfies specifically (McCain et al., 2016); (c) by considering posies in addition to selfies, as well as their themes; and d) by expanding

5. Fill in the Rest

Now, you may choose to review other sections of the article to fill in your understanding. Other sections of a journal article that you can go back to are the literature review, which is a summary of the research that has already been done, and the methods section, which lays out the exact experiment or model used. If there are any limitations or further study sections, you should examine them carefully. Limitations will note if there were any issues that may mean the current study cannot be broadly applied. For instance, maybe the people who were included in the study were mostly men, so it's hard to determine if the conclusions are equally as applicable to women. The Further Study section will discuss areas for further research, or questions that arose that may need to be investigated. You may also wish to look for an Acknowledgements, Funding, or Conflict of Interest statement. Knowing if the study is funded and by whom is helpful in determining whether there is potential bias or influence on the study.

4.3. Limitations and future directions The findings of the present study should be evaluated in the context of several limitations. First, the overall sample size in this study was relatively small. More specifically, the sample for Phase 1 (i.e., targets) was small so as to facilitate a relatively feasible evaluation of these participants’ Instagram posts during Phase 2. Thus, within-subjects correlations should be interpreted with caution in light of the sample size. The between subjects correlations (i.e., perceiver ratings of targets) were less susceptible to the low sample size, as they were based on 119 ratings of each attribute for each target, and the magnitudes of correlations discussed were generally quite large. An additional issue is that although the coding scheme was used in prior research (Barry et al., 2017, Barry et al., 2019) and seemed to generally map onto ratings of others who had no contextual information (e.g., affiliation posies

6. Consider the Article's Relevance to Your Research

Now that you have a general understanding of the text’s different parts and of the main argument, think about what relevance the article has to your own purpose. How might you use ideas from the text to “enter the conversation” about the topic or questions at hand? How does this article help support or advance your argument? You may also choose to look through the article's references to find more research on the same topic.

References section

Reading Analysis Articles

Download a PDF with all the steps for reading an analysis article

Within the fields of arts, humanities, and law, scholarly articles are usually presented differently than in the natural and social sciences. Articles read more like essays, rather than scientific experiments. As a result, there is no standard format or sections to look for. Although an article written in essay style may seem easier to read, the authors are still writing for other experts in their field. As a result, analysis articles may include technical terminology and jargon that make the text difficult to understand.

In the humanities, law, and other fields, scholars do not conduct research experiments on participants but rather  make logical arguments based on the evidence they have, which often comes from texts. How, then, should you approach reading those articles? Use this three-part process as a guide.

View the full analysis article from the example

Note: If you have difficulty understanding a reading or a concept, ask your professor! They are a great resource.

Screenshot of article: Character Through Outdoor Adventure Education? The (Delimiting) Hope of Modern Virtue Ethics

Step 1: Read the Title

First, look at the title of the article to start to determine what the article is about.

Character Through Outdoor Adventure Education? The (Delimiting) Hope of Modern Virtue Ethics

Step 2: Read the Abstract

Now, read the abstract (if included!), and see what you can learn from it. What is the author discussing? What is their main argument? What conclusions do they draw? At this point, you may decide an article is not relevant to your research, and you can move on to a different article.

Abstract: Background: The long-held assumption of character development through outdoor adventure education (OAE) maintains some adherents; however, growing criticism calls into question its efficacy. Yet, current social/environmental crises signal the immediate importance of moral education. Purpose: This article highlights the importance of character in moral assessment and guidance and registers the need for an account of character relevant to OAE's social/environmental aims. It suggests a modern virtue ethical lens as a philosophical and practical way forward for OAE's moral educational mission. Methodology/Approach: This article searches the OAE literature for substantiating evidence (rational and empirical). Then, in light of this search, a virtue ethical account of character, including its development, and relevance to OAE, is outlined. Findings/Conclusions: Evidence for character development through OAE is nearly non-existent, and semantic, philosophical, and empirical critiques loom large. If OAE wishes to continue its moral mission, then an account of character—promisingly provided in virtue ethical theory(s)—that can withstand these critiques is needed. Implications : Applied to OAE, modern virtue ethical theory provides an account of character, copes with the critiques, and supplies socially/environmentally relevant curricular and pedagogical guidance for future practice, while likely delimiting our claim to character development.

Step 3: Skim the Headings

Skim through the article and note any headings. These may be non-standard headings but can help you see the overall structure of the article.

Section heading: The Continuing Connection Between Character Development and OAE

Step 4: First Read Through

Your first time reading through the article will help you see the overall argument and evidence. Look for the thesis, or main argument, of the article within the opening paragraphs. Then continue to the rest of the article. Identify the arguments and evidence throughout the article. Write down any unfamiliar terms to research later.

Screenshot of article text

Step 5: Closer Reading

Now, read the article a second time, paying more attention to the details and how they relate to the article. You may choose to focus on only a subset of the article that is most relevant to your own research. You may also wish to consult the author's bibliography or references to see how their arguments relate to or build upon others.

References list

Reading Review Articles

Download a PDF with all the steps for reading a review article

A review article summarizes a body of existing research and draws a conclusion based on that research. Some types of review articles include literature reviews, meta-analyses, and systematic reviews. This is not original research, but it helps us see the bigger picture about what the overall research shows. These articles do not present original research but instead synthesize multiple studies on a topic to draw conclusions. Review articles are considered high level evidence and are considered the best sources for evidence-based medicine.

Review articles typically include sections such as an abstract, introduction (often with background information), methodology, discussion, and conclusion. Meta-analyses and systematic reviews are specific types of literature reviews that generally follow structured protocols to determine which scholarly works are included/excluded and which criteria are used to determine which works will be synthesized.

View the full review article from the example

Role of Work Breaks in Well-Being and Performance: A Systematic Review and Future Research Agenda

1. Preview the Article

Start by skimming the article to get a sense of its structure and main sections. Look at the abstract, introduction, methodology, results, discussion, and conclusion sections. Review articles also usually include themed headings that categorize different aspects of the topic. Take note of those headings. Some databases or PDF views will allow you to see all headings at a glance.

Headings of the article

2. Read the Abstract

The abstract provides a summary of the entire article, including its purpose, methodology, results, and conclusions. You should identify the key findings and the authors' main arguments.

Abstract of article

3. Read the Introduction

Read the introduction carefully; the introduction identifies the general topic and provides a rationale for why the literature review was needed. It also identifies overall trends and gaps in the research and explains the general approach to the literature review.

This introduction includes two section headings: Work Breaks, Well-Being, and Performance of Knowledge Workers and Why Do Work Breaks Relate to Well-Being and Performance? These section headings help you understand the main focus of the authors' research.

Part of the introduction with two sentences highlighted:

4. Review the Methodology

In a meta-analysis, this section details the criteria used for selecting studies, the search strategy, inclusion/exclusion criteria, and the statistical methods employed. In a literature review, it may describe the criteria for selecting literature and the methods used for synthesis.

In this article, the methodology section is included under the heading Literature Review Method and Scope. It contains a discussion of how the authors searched the literature and what types of studies were included/excluded. Page 474 includes a PRISMA Flow Diagram, a common visual included in literature reviews to show how many studies were found and then included/excluded in various steps.

PRISMA Flow Diagram

5. Read the Results/Discussion

Depending on how the article is structured, you will find summaries of the research in either the Results or Discussion section. In this article, there are categorized sections within the Results area, such as Activities and Experiences During Work Breaks, which are further subdivided (e.g., social media breaks, social breaks).

6. Read the Conclusion

The Conclusion section interprets the results considering the research question and previous literature. You should assess how well the authors' interpretations align with the evidence presented. Look for strengths and limitations acknowledged by the authors. Evaluate whether the conclusions are supported by the evidence presented in the article.

Conclusion: This article presents a systematic review of work breaks in relation to well-being and performance among knowledge workers, illuminating the current state of the work break research. By reviewing various operationalizations of work breaks, we advance a model for conceptualizing the same. Further, drawing on the extant research, we offer an integrative framework of the effects of work breaks on well-being and performance. Our hope is that the proposed model and framework will inform future investigations of work breaks. In addition, organizations can use this review to inform their policies regarding breaks, while practitioners interested in work breaks can use it as a starting point to understand how work breaks relate to well-being and performance outcomes.

7. Reflect and Engage

After reading the article, take some time to reflect on its significance, how it contributes to the field, and any questions or ideas it raises for future research. If the article appeals to you, consider exploring related literature to deepen your understanding of the topic. Take note of any references cited in the article that seem particularly relevant or interesting. These can lead you to additional sources for further exploration of the topic.

References section

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