How to read academic articles
Here’s a dirty secret: Professors rarely read entire journal articles. There just isn’t time in a busy work schedule, and there are too many potentially interesting papers getting published ever day. So, most academics develop a system to quickly and efficiently keep abreast of the literature in their area, while still finding time for research, grading, administration, grant writing, and then maybe family and some semblance of a social life.
Here’s a dirty secret: Professors rarely read entire journal articles.
It helps that many academic articles have a similar format. The title and abstract provide an overview of the work. These are also usually freely available. If you have access to the full article, then most begin with an introduction and section that reviews the existing scholarship in the area. This literature review should explain what is known, and not known, about the study area. In doing so it should set up why the rest of the paper exists. Then there is usually a section outlining the data and methods. This can frequently get a little technical. The results follow this, before the paper wraps up with a discussion of the pertinent findings and their wider implications.
People develop their own skimming system, and it may vary depending on why you are reading. For example, are you looking to learn a new analytical technique, or to gather conclusions about what works to tackle violent crime? These two goals might result in a different approach; however, here is one general method to consider.
First, start with the title. It will indicate if the paper is in your area of interest and may also indicate if the work is understandable. If you cannot understand half of the title, I would not be hopeful that the rest of the article is any more readable.
If you are still interested, read the abstract. A well-written abstract is a concise summary of the article, briefly describing the study, methods, and results. Are you still interested? Only continue to the full paper if the abstract suggests that the paper will be of value to you. Otherwise, move on and seek out another article more relevant. Seriously. There is no point fixating and wasting time on an article that is not relevant to your work.
If the title and abstract have piqued your interest, jump into the introduction. If the paper is in a familiar research area, you can skim over most of this. Focus on the last paragraph or two. This is where the authors usually explain the key research question and how they intend to tackle it.
Next, read the conclusion. What?! Skip all the meat in the middle? Yes, for now. Journal styles differ, but if there is a conclusion, jump ahead to it. If not, read at least the first paragraph or two of the discussion. This should be where the authors summarize what they found, and what they learned from doing all the hard work that you just skipped past. Discussion sections can veer off into the authors’ interpretation of the findings, but that is often just what they think it means. The key first paragraph or two should summarize the results and you can then supplement their perspective with your own conclusions.
It is worth glancing at any figures and graphs. It is often true that a picture is worth a thousand words. If there are numerical tables, asterisks * usually indicate variables that are statistically significant. In other words, what matters. Look over the results section to see if the authors explain why they are important and how to understand them.
Optionally, if you are interested in the methodology, wade into the methods section. This can often be academically dense and jargon laden. Bear in mind the authors may have been studying the area for decades, and both the analytical technique and terminology may be impenetrable. Cut yourself a break. You do not have to understand every nuance of a study to take something useful from it.
Finally, consider skimming through the introduction and literature review. You already looked at a paragraph or two of the study’s preamble, but if the area is new to you, look for any literature flagged as ‘seminal’, ‘key’, or otherwise important. These are the foundation articles in the field, and the next articles you should explore. You can find the citations in the reference list.
You do not have to digest every nuance and sentence of an article to glean its pertinent details, and saving time allows you to explore a wider body of research.
Remember, the key here is speed and efficiency, so that you only spend time on the scholarly work that is directly relevant to your study. You do not have to digest every nuance and sentence of an article to glean its pertinent details, and saving time allows you to explore a wider body of research.