During your study or researching for your assignments, you may have to read scholarly articles. Although you, as a learner, may need to read them now and again, scholarly articles were not written with you in mind (sorry!) so if you sit down with an article and find it incomprehensible, it's not you that's at fault, it's because the article has been written using very specialised language for a very specialised readership.
The good news is that they're not beyond understanding and there are some things you can do to help get some understanding of what's going on in a scholarly article.
A typical scholarly article will have the following sections:
- Abstract - a short summary of the article - what it's about, what tests, experiments or work was done, results and conclusions
- Introduction: sets the background and context of the work and reviews the other articles that the authors have read during their work
- Materials and Methods - All the details on how all the work was done and all the materials used
- Results - the presentation of the data generated by the work and may include figures, tables, charts and images
- Discussion - where the results are analysed, and the authors talk about whether they achieved what they were trying to do
- Conclusions - What the authors have learned from doing the work and what they recommend doing in the future
- References - where the authors list all the sources they looked at during the course of their work.
An article might have a separate literature review, or conclusions and recommendations might be separate, but most articles will follow the above format.
From elsewhere in this section, you should know about the argument, an opinion that supported by facts. Every article has an argument and even though the article might be full of technical jargon and not easy to read, the authors, somewhere near the start of the article, must state their argument - what they're doing and why they're doing it. The work that they present will be facts that support their argument. Once you have the argument, you have the key to understanding the article.
Having established the different parts of an article, let's look at how to approach reading articles. Here's an article - not a real one, obviously.
Read the Title
You can learn a lot by reading the title of the article. You should be able to immediately tell if the article might be relevant to what you're looking for
Read the Abstract.
The abstract acts as a preview for the entire article and usually includes methods ("We examined several apples' color") and results ("Although most are red, some are not). By reading the Abstract first, you should get a good idea of what the article is about
A couple of questions to ask:
- What is the article is about?
- Having read the abstract, is it worth your time reading the rest of the article?
Read the Introduction and Discussion/Conclusions
The introduction provides more background and context to the work carried out, while the discussion and conclusions will tell you what that the authors found out and what they draw from that. Questions to ask:
- What does this work do that is new and different? ("resolve this (the colour of apples) issue once and for all
- Are there other articles mentioned in the introduction that you should take a look at? (Macintosh, 1993 and Smith 1999 maybe)
- What is the authors main argument? (seeing if all apples are red)
- Does the argument agree or disagree with other articles you have read on the subject?
Look at the Results
The results section provides the details of the work and is where the data generated by the work is presented. Look at any visual representations of the data - charts, tables figures etc., but if they're not easy to read, look for their explanations (sentences that mention the figure, table or graphic) Questions to ask:
- What did the authors find out from the work? (Apples are different colours)
- Do the results agree with what the authors say they do?
- Can you draw the same conclusions as the authors?
Read the entire article
Now that you have some context, go back and read the entire article. It still might not be easy to read, but you will have an idea of the article's topic and what the authors' conclusions are.
- Always remember why are you reading the article Is it to help with an assignment, or to help with your study? Always bear this in mind when you are reading an article
- Focus on the relevant information
- They might use fancy language, but remember, authors are only human. They have their own biases and interpretations of the data; they might say the sea is blue, but you might think from their data that the sea is green.
- Remember too, that you're reading interpretations of data - nothing you read is necessarily 100% true. The authors on one level are telling a story and might have picked things that fit into the story
- Draw your own conclusions
- Think critically about all that you read.
- Take notes as you read.
- Look up any words that you don't know
Images from Are Apples Red? taken from How to Read a Scientific Paper by Michael Fosmire, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike4.0 International License