Reading research-based journal articles

This guide focuses on reading research-based journal articles typically found in Science and Social Science disciplines. 


These articles typically include the following sections:

  • Abstract – A short summary of the entire article.
  • Introduction (or “Literature review”) – A description of the author’s research question, general approach, and findings of previous research in related areas.
  • Methods – A detailed description of how the author researched the question.
  • Results – An account of what the author found.  In studies using quantitative research methods, findings are portrayed in numbers and graphs; qualitative studies often show examples of quotes from research participants.
  • Discussion (or  “Conclusion”) – A recap of the findings given in the Results section, in paragraph form, and a discussion of perceived significance and limitations of the research, including suggestions for future research projects.
  • Reference list – A list showing where to find the previous research discussed in the article.
Often students try to read articles in order –- from the Abstract to the Reference List –- and think they will be responsible for knowing all the details in it. They often get frustrated and anxious when they hit the Methods and Results sections fairly early on and have trouble understanding the technical complexity in those sections.  
Here is some information to save you time and angst.

You do not need to know everything in the article!

It is better not to read the article in order!

You only need to understand the elements of the article that are relevant to your purpose for reading it. For example, if you are writing a paper, you should understand those aspects of the article that are relevant to the topic of your paper. 

If you are unsure about your purpose in reading an article and what you are expected to get out of it, ask your instructor, TA or TM.

Start with the abstract, and other time-saving tips

If you read in this order, and follow these strategies, articles are usually easier to understand.

1. Abstract

Reading this summary first is a time-saving strategy.  It may alert you to the fact that the whole article is irrelevant to your purpose and can be skipped, or it could alert you that only some parts of the article are relevant and need to be read in detail.

2. Introduction 

(Reading the Discussion second, and the Introduction third, is an equally effective approach.)

Think about the relevance of the author’s research question to your purpose and whether you agree with the author’s overall approach to researching this issue.

Skim to find a discussion of previous research that is relevant to your purpose.  Read those parts in detail, possibly finding those articles in the Reference List for future reading.

3. Discussion

Skim, looking for findings related to your purpose for reading the article. Read those parts in detail.

If you are curious about, or responsible for, knowing how the author arrived at a particular finding, look at further details in the Methods section.

If you are curious about, or responsible for, knowing the numbers associated with a particular finding (or, in a qualitative study, the information that led to the finding), look for that part of the Results section.

Think about whether the author draws appropriate conclusions from the results, and also about the relationship between these findings and those in other articles you are reading for the same purpose.

Read the author’s comments about the significance and limitations of the research and note whether you agree and why.

4. Methods and Results sections

The extent to which you will be held responsible for understanding the Methods and Results sections and for applying the information in those sections to think critically about the piece of research, will depend on the stage you’re at in your program of studies. 

Much less is expected in First Year courses, before students are expected to have taken Research Methods or Statistics courses. In Upper Division courses and Graduate studies, expectations steadily rise regarding the sophistication with which you critique whether the way the study was done calls into question the study’s finding, or whether the numbers in the Results section correspond to the description of the findings in the Discussion.  

If in doubt about expectations, ask your instructor, TA, or TM.