Booth Library
Eastern Illinois University
Eastern Illinois University Logo

How to Read a Journal Article

D2L embed


Instructors: Copy the text below and paste it into the "insert stuff" area in D2L to insert this guide into your D2L class.

<iframe src="" height="800" width="820"></iframe>

Watch a short video tutorial on embedding library research guides into D2L.

As a student at EIU, you'll be asked to search for scholarly journal articles on a topic, read them, think about the ideas presented there, and cite them in research papers you write.  However, depending on how well you know the subject, scholarly journal articles may be hard to understand.  Because they're written by academics or experts in professional fields, they may contain unfamiliar jargon.  Some articles will use a complex sentence structure and include charts, graphs, tables, and statistics. 

Read more about what scholarly (peer-reviewed) journals are and how to search for them in Booth Library databases.  See also the Booth Library guide on how to evaluate your article search results.

This guide provides suggestions for how to read scholarly articles and think critically about their contents. 

Tip: Just because an article is short doesn't mean it will be easier to understand than a longer one!   A lot will depend on the complexity of the material and the clarity of the author's writing style.
Joining the scholarly conversation
Before getting into the article itself, examine the title, author, and publication date.  Just like the research papers you write, journal articles will have an argument and will present data or other information to support the viewpoint the authors take. 

Here are some concepts to think about:

          –  What information can you gather from the title of the article?
          –  Is the author affiliated with an institution or an organization?
          –  When was the article written?  Does it present current information, or could the information be
              out of date?

          –  Each article is part of an ongoing scholarly conversation about a topic, with many authors contributing
              their viewpoints in the form of research they've conducted.  (Or, in the case of "review articles" or
              "literature review articles," authors will be summarizing the previous research on a topic.)
          –  As an author yourself, your opinions are important!  As you process the article, come up with your
              own judgments on the information it presents, and question the author's argument if it seems flawed. 
              Also, look out for any potential bias on the author's part.

Read the article title, and note the authors' affiliations.
Scanning through the article
Many scholarly journal articles will be structured in a similar way.  At minimum, they should have an abstract, introduction, and headings that show how the material is organized. 

Tip:  Don't read the article straight through!  Instead, focus on specific parts of the article.  

Ask yourself some questions prior to reading, such as:
        -  Why am I reading this?
        -  What specific information am I looking for?
        -  How thoroughly do I need to understand this information?

Read the parts of the article in the following order.

(Note:  Some articles may omit one or more of these sections.  Articles in humanities and social science fields, like literature, education, and history, may be based on the author's exploration of literary texts rather than scientific data and will be presented differently.  Make note of the typical structure of articles in the field that you're studying.)

1.  Abstract.  

This will be a paragraph-long summary of what the article is about, appearing at the beginning.  If you found the article in an online database, the abstract will be provided there, too. 

Use the information in the abstract to judge whether the article will be useful for your needs.  If the abstract uses terms you don't understand, take the time to look them up.  This will help you understand not only this particular article, but the language used by scholars in the discipline.  Key words (important terms, phrases, or concepts) may be provided after the abstract.  Read these as well to get a good idea of the article's focus.

The following abstract comes from:  Nepal KC, V., Colombo, R. E., & Frankland, L. D. (2015). Demographics of Shovelnose Sturgeon in the Lower Wabash River, Illinois. North American Journal Of Fisheries Management, 35(4), 835-844.
Read the full article here

Abstract of article

2. Headings and subheadings.

Most articles will have different labeled sections.  Make note of these headings and subheadings to get a better feel for the article's structure and the topics discussed.

3. Summary/Conclusion.

Skip ahead to the very end of the article.  What are the main findings and implications of this study?  If the article still looks useful to you, continue to the introduction, methods,  results, and discussion.

4.  Introduction.

Read the first paragraph(s) after the abstract.  What question(s) does this study address? 
What is the authors' thesis? In scientific articles, this information tends to be in the final paragraph of the Introduction section.

The following examples come from:  Addison, W. E., Stowell, J. R., & Reab, M. D. (2015). Attributes of introductory psychology and statistics teachers: Findings from comments on Scholarship Of Teaching And Learning In Psychology, 1(3), 229-234.
Read the full article here

Rate My Professors article - introduction
  5. Materials and Methods.

This section will be provided for many articles in the science and social science fields.  How was the study conducted?  What type of study is it?  Is this research new, or does it replicate an earlier study? 

Methodology example

6.  Results.

What did the study find? Spend some time trying to interpret the figures and graphs.

7.  Discussion.

What have the authors concluded from their study? Did the study answer the initial questions posed?

Discussion example

8.  Finally, skim the article as a whole.

Keep an eye out for important words and concepts.  Highlight any cited references that appear relevant.  As you read, make your own annotations in the margins, pulling out the main points to the article.

The authors' bibliography (or footnotes) will list the sources that they consulted, and you may find these articles worth investigating for your own research, too.
For further reading
From Lakehead University:  How to Read Journal Articles in the Arts and Humanities  (short video)

From the University of Michigan's Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR): How to Read (and Understand) a Social Science Journal Article (PDF)

Zeegers, Peter, ed. Essential Skills For Science & Technology. Victoria, Australia: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print. 
Find it at Booth Library:  Book Stacks Q181 .E73 2008.