Reading and assessing academic articles can be challenging when you’re new to it. They’re not always clear, and they tend to be really long and complicated. If you set out to read every article from start to finish, you will never get your research done! It’s important to learn how to read academic articles effectively so that you can get through them efficiently, but still understand their content.
Below, I’ve reviewed the different sections you’ll find in academic articles, and then show you how to skim an article quickly. I’ll also highlight how to find the key points of an article, and then explain how to keep your research organized with a spreadsheet or reference manager (or both). Finally, I’ll add a little about plagiarism and how to avoid it.
This post is about reading and understanding academic articles. For more information on conducting research, including assessing the quality and relevance of an article for your research, you should also read this post:
Sections of Academic Articles
The purpose of the title is to provide information about what is in the article. You won’t often see “fun” titles on articles. In fact, when you do see a unique title, you are much more likely to have to get into the abstract to find out what the article is about! Of course the title is the first thing you’ll read and assess to see if you want to read the rest of the article.
The abstract is a short paragraph at the beginning of a paper that summarizes what it’s about. This is a great starting place before you get into the whole article because it will summarize the basics of the paper. What is it about, why did they do it, what kind of research did they do, and what did they find. This is the first thing you should read, to see if it’s even worth keeping the article and reading the rest of it.
This section provides the background for the research. What previous research has already been done on this topic? What has already been found? Reading this section can help you find other articles on similar topics for your own research. It can also help you understand what aspects of this topic have previously been studied and what has been said about it.
The methods section tells you more about the type of research and how it was done. What kind of data was used and where did it come from? It is important to understand how your researchers came to their conclusions, so you’ll want to take a look at this section.
This is where the researchers tell you what they discovered in their research, in detail. The findings are the detailed results of the study and will include a lot of information about what they learned.
In the discussion, the authors highlight the most important findings from their research and connect them to the background information to highlight the relevancy and importance of their findings. Most researchers will also include information on areas in which further research is required.
The conclusion is a short summary of the research and the most important findings, including information about why these findings are the most relevant. It may also connect them to other research or next steps, such as further research or validation of their findings.
How to Skim an Academic Article Quickly
The first things you should read are the title, abstract, and then discussion and conclusion.
Title & Abstract
You should always start with the title and abstract, because these are going to give you the very basic information about the study. Once you’ve read the abstract, you should know whether you should keep going and whether the article is sufficiently related to your research topic to keep reading
Discussion & Conclusion
The discussion and conclusion will tell you what the ultimate findings of the article were, which will indicate whether it’s useful for your argument. Because these sections share the most relevant findings from the study and relate them to important contextual and background information, they will help you see how the research relates to your own research.
When Should I Read the Whole Paper?
You should read the whole paper if you are relying significantly on it to support your argument. Here is what you should be looking for in each section:
The introduction and background sections are really helpful when you are getting started on a topic, because they will cite other articles that might be helpful for you to look up, as well as providing the contextual information for the study. You can use this to understand the main arguments that have been made about your topic, as well as understanding how that topic has been approached in the past.
Read the methods section to understand how the researchers arrived at their findings and conclusions. If you are using an article to support your argument, you will need to understand how they conducted their study and why it is reliable, as well as how their methods may have impacted the findings. The methods will explain how the researchers came to their findings.
The findings section will explain everything the authors found through their research. Although the discussion and conclusion will highlight particularly relevant findings, this section will tell you everything they discovered, including anything that was unexpected or that was inconclusive. The findings section will help you understand why the discussion focuses on particular aspects of the findings and not others.
Reference managers are programs and apps that will help you to manage your readings. There are free ones, and ones that cost money – but your university may have subscriptions so you don’t have to pay personally.
You can save all the papers you read in a reference manager so that you can refer back to them. Many of these also connect to Word and/or Google docs and can easily insert your citations (in-text and the reference list) already formatted for the appropriate style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc). This is more important if you plan to go to grad school, because you can keep track of all your research throughout your academic career. Check your university’s library website to find out if they support particular reference managers. Here are a few of the most common ones:
Zotero is a free reference manager that also has search capabilities, meaning that it can help you find articles related to the ones you add to it.
Mendeley is another free reference manager. It has most of the same features as other reference managers and is easy to get to know.
EndNote has a fee associated with it, but this is my preferred reference manager. You can save all your papers, as well as their info, as well as adding your own notes and keywords.
Spreadsheets (in Excel, Google sheets, or other) can also be helpful for collecting your research papers, because you can add columns that are specifically relevant to your own topic. These may be the country, or methods, or a comparison of the findings. A spreadsheet can be easier for making quick comparisons between different papers. You can use a spreadsheet in addition to one of the reference managers above, or to replace them entirely.
When you are taking notes and adding the ideas of others in your papers, make sure you are giving them appropriate credit. This means, in your own notes, you need to make sure you’ve indicated that something is a direct quote, so that if you add it to your paper you can indicate this. And remember that whether it’s a direct quote, or a paraphrase, you need to attribute it to the original authors.
Using someone else’s ideas without crediting them is called plagiarism and you can get in trouble for this at university. An aspect of academic research is using others’ ideas to build and support your own arguments, but you have to give credit to those folks for their ideas. Make sure you know which citation style you are supposed to use, and that you are crediting the ideas of others properly so you can avoid plagiarism.
Check out this post to read more about how to do research for your university courses: