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How to read an academic article

I’m starting a Yoga Studies Reading Group with Nourish. Each month I will select one resource (an academic article or extract), and we’ll get together on a Zoom call and discuss it. My aim is to share knowledge in a supportive environment where no question is too silly, and no response too strange to consider together. If you’re curious, you can find out more here: https://nourishyogatraining.com/online-yoga-classes/

But it reminded me that reading an academic article is a useful skill for many of us to acquire. In fact, I ran a tutorial for the OU last weekend helping students do just that. And in the interests of sharing knowledge, I’m sharing that advice here too…

This is a guide to reading articles in peer reviewed academic journals, although the tips and skills involved are appropriate for other kinds of reading where your critical faculties need to be fully engaged.

The most important thing to remember is that you are usually not going to be reading in order to understand every word or nuance. An academic article is part of a process of knowledge exchange, based on original thought and research, and checked by a ‘jury’ of academic peers. It is written in a particular way, for a particular purpose.

It’s also worth remembering that even for academic scholars, this is some of the hardest reading we ever have to do. We also have to do a lot of it, so we need strategies for doing it quickly. But it’s worth it to be at the cutting edge of research!

What am I reading?

The first question to ask yourself is: what type of article are you reading? Is it a report on the findings of a specific research project? Is it a summary or meta-review of existing research on a topic? Or is it an addition to an ongoing theoretical debate?

As this handy article suggests (https://subjectguides.york.ac.uk/critical/articles ), an article will usually be more empirical or more theoretical. An empirical article will often contain details of the methodology and results of an experiment or medical trial. A theoretical article will often provide a good summary of the field of debate so far.

The next question to ask yourself is: what academic discipline is the article contributing to? Often this is clear from the title of the journal it is published in. The journal Religions of South Asia is going to have a different conception of what ‘yoga’ is than the Journal of Research in Health Sciences. But they’re also going to have different standards for judging evidence, and different ideas of what good research looks like. Answering this question can be obvious when separating out medicine from anthropology, but can get much harder, and more contentious, when separating, say, religious studies from theology. What we really want to know is: what approach to finding out a ‘fact’ are the authors taking?

Is this article worth reading?

What is the gap in knowledge that the article is trying to address? What specific questions are the authors asking and answering? And what boundaries are they setting on their contribution to knowledge?

Most good research projects are quite narrow and specific in approach. The conclusions of the article might have implications for a wider field of knowledge, but if the authors are discussing, for example, meanings of the word hatha in 17th century Sanskrit texts, the article can’t tell you how the word develops into the 18th century or beyond.

Therefore, it is useful to understand how this article relates to other articles, and a good article should tell you. The Open University, among many others, teaches students to assess the quality of any research source or other information according to the PROMPT guidance (https://www.open.ac.uk/libraryservices/documents/advanced-evaluation-using-prompt.pdf ):

Presentation, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Provenance, and Timeliness. It’s worth reading that guidance in full.

How do I read it?

Unless you are trying to fact check every aspect of an article, usually you wouldn’t read an academic article closely. Even if you are, it’s best to do a first scan. Some people suggest skimming the article, reading the introduction, the conclusion, maybe the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Some say you should make a list of every word you don’t understand to look it up, others say just skip them. The point is, use a range of reading strategies as you need to. At least on your first reading, try to take in and consider the meaning of the text overall, without reading every single word. Think about how the article is written as well as what they have written. How do the authors develop and provide evidence for each claim they are making, and how do those claims build to an overall argument?

Scan the article for key words related to your reasons for reading this article in particular. Skim the body of the article to figure out the key points it is making. Make a decision as to whether you need to go back and read parts in more detail. But above all, take your critical thinking with you. Just because one academic, one editor and two peer reviewers all thought this article was sound, that doesn’t mean you can’t disagree.

Indeed, thinking moves on, so do check the date on the articles you read. Heavy weight articles that defined a whole field of knowledge will hang around, but often 10 years or more later, other academics will still have written articles responding to and refining those theories. On the other hand, academic publishing takes a long time, and niche topics might not get new research published very often. Just because an article has been around a long time, doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant at all.

How do I navigate it?

The structure of an academic article is as follows.

Abstract

This is a summary of the article. It is written to persuade you of its usefulness. Read the abstract to determine whether or not the article is likely to focus on the topics in which you are interested, as well as to understand how the article relates to a wider field of knowledge. The abstract may also be accompanied by keywords, which can be useful in deciding which words you want to scan for.

Introduction and conclusion

These go, obviously, at the start and the end of the article. The introduction also gives the background to the article and explains why the topic has been researched. The conclusion ties together all the claims and themes of the article to provide a overall argument. Together, it can be helpful to read the introduction and conclusion of an article before reading an article straight through.

Main body

The main body of the article is often broken up into subsections which help the reader navigate the content. In an empirical or scientific article, subsections often divide the content in a very specific way, labelled as the method, the results, and the analysis of those results. You might just want to skip to the analysis if you’re only interested in what the authors think that they found out. If you want to judge how robust the research is however, you’ll want to understand their methods.

In a theoretical article, subsections are most often labelled by their main point. So reading those subheadings can help you understand the argument of the article overall even without reading the paragraphs that they contain.

References

At the end of the article there will be a reference list containing every article cited by the authors. This is so that any reader can follow-up claims and evidence made by the authors. But also, if a particular source has been referenced multiple times and you think their insights are interesting, you can go on to find and read that source too.

Conclusion and final thoughts

Again, journal articles are probably the most difficult content you will ever have to read. It might help to think of them as puzzles to unlock. What is the writer trying to communicate? How does what they are saying link to a wider conversation? As a non-expert, you probably won’t be coming to each article with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the academic field in question. But even scholars have to read outside of our ‘usual’ subject disciplines, and when we do, we brush up on our close reading and critical thinking skills, using strategies just like the ones I’ve just set out.

I hope this makes any scholarly article less intimidating and more accessible. This won’t help with the language skills I’m afraid. Sometimes scholars will use complex words either in order to seem more impressive, or simply because those are the words that their brain is comfortable with. But often complex words are needed in order to discuss complex ideas. Not every scholar is good at explaining complex ideas in simple language. So try not to take the long words too personally!

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