How to study: Reading a journal article

Academic journal articles come in a variety of flavors, qualities, and availabilities. If you have been gathering journal articles and other artifacts of scholars over your academic career you will have a healthy trove of original and recent articles. Each one of these articles and books will help you out in the future. I have written, reviewed, and edited hundreds (thousands) of academic articles and the following is a quick summation of the way to read a journal article.

First, there will be a lot of people that say the following method is feeding the millennial/genx penchant for TL;DR (to long didn’t read) and short attention span of the electronic generation. Quite simply that is bull shit. With the proliferation of journals and the stupid policies of academia being publish or perish articles that are awesome, good, and poor are all over even the best rated journals. Second, you are using your time to get to the heart of something and that shows focus. Third, people have been using generational schism since Og was a caveman. It is silly. Fourth, this is a generalized recipe to get you started. As you build expertise you will get faster and faster and able to handle the one-of special cases that I won’t cover here.

What you want to know about a journal article.

A journal article will be experimental, meta, or opinion/how to. That means it uses a scientific method, observational strategy or is expressing an informed set of arguments. We are going to focus on the experimental as opinion articles is outside of our scope today, and meta will likely fit into the structure.

The general structure of a journal article, and usually found in the following order.

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Literature review
  4. Methods
  5. Results
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography

Don’t get stuck on titles. If your goal is to get comfortable with a domain of knowledge that you know nothing about then you should read the entire article straight through. But, if you are looking for references in the literature review of an article you are writing, methods for something you want to experiment with, or you want to see how other people are getting answers a partial read will fulfill your desire.

In general.

Read the conclusion first. You will want to highlight the hypothesis which should be restated from the introduction. If the experiment was a bust you will now know that. If the article does not support your assertions (meta study) or the principles that you are trying to evoke (experimental) that will be very obvious in the conclusion. Often authors will state courses of future work and that can help you in the selection process of future papers. I keep a journal that has dozens of ideas to write about based on what I come up with and what other people come up with. Since I work in a particular domain if somebody else comes up with the same idea I will cite them when I write on the topic, “X in a parallel effort suggested while writing on Y that the following was a topical question.”

Read the methods second. Poor practices and re-writes of journal articles usually happen when the scientist did not focus on the correct bias, control for bias, or started out with a poorly formed plan to study a problem. You can harvest entire sections of articles (citing correctly) the methods used. As part of literature reviews you should include other domain scientists articles methods to support why your chosen methods are correct. Think of it this way. The methods are the tool while the results and conclusions are the artifact of those methods.

At this point if everything on your review. And, your review of a scientific article should always be with skepticism looking for every chink in the thinking of the writer. That is what science is about and why publishing in the domain is so hard. You should make a decision on whether to read the results section (dig deeper) or read the bibliography.

The bibliography is a sign post to bias.

If you are going to write in a domain or become an expert in a domain you should download and keep in a citation tool like Zotero, Mendley, or EndNote all of the articles you find in a bibliography. I usually categorize these as reviewed or not reviewed. You are looking through a bibliography to see if the authors are citing themselves, using relevant resources, or are using the sources correctly.  It does not take much time to find that themes of incorrect assertion move through academic circles quickly and are cited using the same sources. Yet those sources do not support the assertion made.

This is important.

Whatever you write whether a tenured professor or a freshman engineer can and will be used against you in the future. This sucks but is simply the truth of a hyper offended world that will impugn character based on the youthful and aged indiscretion of a moment. Cite everything.

Mine the bibliography.

Every time you read an article gather up those sources. It will not take very long for you to have a good handle on the quality and capability of the writers and journals. Further after an undergraduate career you will find that not only are you a domain expert, that you are literally and I mean LITERALLY one of the smartest book taught people in the room. You can use that swath of knowledge to better focus real and relevant work in a way that others won’t. You have also learned different and significant thinking strategies based on your developing understanding of experimentation. You will be able to write cohesively procedural based scientific papers rather than opinion or how to articles.


If you take articles to a direct to electronic mechanism you can often highlight articles based on principles I’ve written about previously. I will also write questions, suggestions on bias, and other notes about the article. I have been known to create bibliographical mind maps of citations and article sources to show the timeline of authors thinking on topics. It also highlights what appears to be the end of the road where ideas seem to have stalled or people have not picked something up. It also helps to not be using information from the wrong branch or being prepared to explain why I reached for an entire other tree of knowledge to support something.

Quality is not a function of opinion.

Wikipedia, most newspapers, most magazines, and the student sitting next to you are not the sources of scientific information. They are not citeable sources. In general they are not peer reviewed, they often are reporting on a scientific topic (something you NEVER want to do), and even when they provide sources (Wikipedia) they do not provide the scientific argument structure that is important. Just as a side point, encyclopedias are not appropriate sources either.

That all said. You should now have a structure around what to read first, how to read it, and what to do with the information. You also have a background on the sources you should be looking for and how to mine those sources for other sources. You even have a strategy for displaying visually sources and materials to see what the root and leaves of the knowledge tree you are looking at. I would usually say start with the very first week of the very first day of university building your questions (in a journal or electronic notebook) and mining the sources of every subsequent article. With that done you will have the broadest appreciation of the topics.

Students who start down this path will often get to point and structure their thinking around chemistry, physics, math, sociology or similar. The students will create separate citation libraries based on the class, the topic, or the paper they write. With the advent of efficient search, dynamic tagging in most of the citation tools, the fact most academic topics are becoming multi-disciplinary (another word for relevant) you can keep it all in one library. Back that up, keep it safe and use it often.

If this helps out at all I’ll write further on things like how to write a semester paper, and other such topics. Let me know and keep being awesome.