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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Reading Research Effectively

Reading a Scholarly Article or Research Paper

Reading Research Publications Effectively

It's easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated when first reading a scholarly article or research paper. The text is dense and complex and often includes abstract or convoluted language. In addition, the terminology may be confusing or applied in a way that is unfamiliar. To help overcome these challenges when you first read an article or research paper, focus on asking specific questions about each section. This strategy can help with overall comprehension and understanding how the content relates [or does not relate] to the research problem you are investigating. This approach will also help identify key themes as you read additional studies on the same topic. As you review more and more studies about your topic, the process of understanding and critically evaluating the research will become easier because the content of what you review will begin to coalescence around common themes and patterns of analysis.

Think about the following in this general order:

1.  Read the Abstract

An abstract summarizes the basic content of a scholarly article or research paper. Questions to consider when reading the abstract are: What is this article about? What is the working hypothesis or thesis? Is this related to my question or area of research? The abstract can be used to help filter out sources that may have appeared useful when you began searching for information but, in reality, are not relevant.

2.  Identify the Research Problem and Underlying Questions? 

If, after reading the abstract, you believe the paper may be useful, focus on examining the research problem and identifying the questions the author is trying to address. Look for information that is relevant to your research problem and make note of how and in what way this information relates to what you are investigating.

3.  Read the Introduction and Discussion/Conclusion

The introduction provides the main argument and theoretical framework of the article. Questions to consider for the introduction include what do we already know about this topic and what is left to discover? What other research has been conducted about this topic? How is this research unique? Will this study tell me anything new related to the research problem I am investigating?

Questions to ask yourself while reading the discussion and conclusion sections include what does the study mean and why is it important? What are the weaknesses in their argument? Does the conclusion contain any recommendations for future research and do you believe conclusions about the significance of the study and its findings are valid?

4.  Read about the Methods/Methodology

If what you have read so far closely relates to your research problem, then move on to reading about how the author(s) gathered information for their research. Questions to consider include how did the author do the research? Was it a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods project? What data is the study based on? Could I repeat their work and is all the information available to repeat the study?

5.  Read about the Results and Analysis

Next, read the outcome the research and how it was discussed and analyzed. If any non-textual elements [e.g., graphs, charts, tables, etc.] are confusing, focus on the explanations about them in the text. Questions to consider are what did the author find and how did they find it? Are the results presented in a factual and unbiased way? Does their analysis of results agree with the data presented? Is all the data present? What conclusions do you formulate from this data and does it match with the author's conclusions?

6.  Review the References

The list of references, or works cited, shows you the basis of prior research used by the author(s) to support their study. The references can be an effective way to identify additional sources of information on the topic. Questions to ask include what other research studies should I review? What other authors are respected in this field, i.e., who is cited most often by others? What other research should be explored to learn about issues I am unclear or need more information about?

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article (Interactive tutorial). Andreas Orphanides, North Carolina State University Libraries, 2009; Day, Trevor, Julie Letchford, Hazel Corradi, and Thomas Rogers. "Devising an Online Resource to Help Undergraduate Science Students Critically Evaluate Research Articles." Journal of Academic Writing 5 (2015): 1-19; Hendrick, Robert C., and Walter R. Thompson. "Reading Research 101." ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal 20 (2016): 9-13; How to Read an Article in a Scholarly Journal (Research Guide) Cayuga Community College Library, 2016; How To Read a Scholarly Journal Article (YouTube Video). Tim Lockman, Kishwaukee College Library, 2012; Library Research Methods: Read & Evaluate. Culinary Institute of America Library, 2016; Van Lacum, Edwin B., Miriam A. Ossevoort, and Martin J. Goedhart. "A Teaching Strategy with a Focus on Argumentation to Improve Undergraduate Students’ Ability to Read Research Articles." CBE-Life Sciences Education 13 (2014): 253-264. Adapted from text originally created by Holly Burt, USC Libraries, April 2018. Thank you Holly!

Reading Tips

Preparing to Read a Scholarly Article or Research Paper for the First Time

Reading scholarly publications effectively is an acquired skill that involves attention to detail and the ability to comprehend complex ideas, data, and concepts in a way that applies logically to the research problem you are investigating. Here are some strategies to consider.

While You are Reading

  • Focus on information in the publication that is most relevant to the research problem
  • Think critically about what you read and seek to build your own arguments; not everything is 100% true or examined effectively
  • Read out of order! This isn't a novel or movie; you want to start with the spoiler
  • Look up the definitions of words you don't know as you read
Highlight Key Points and Take Notes

There are any number of ways to take notes as you read, but use the method that you feel most comfortable with. Taking notes as you read will save time when you go back to examine your sources. Below are some suggestions:

  • Print the article and highlight, circle, and/or underline text as you read [or, you can use the highlight text feature in a PDF document]
  • Take notes in the margins [Adobe Reader offers pop-up sticky notes]
  • Focus on highlighting important quotes; consider using a different color to differentiate between quotes and other types of text you want to return to when writing
  • Quickly summarize the main or key points at the end of the paper
Reflect on What You Have Read

As you read, write down questions that come to mind that relate to or may clarify your research problem. Here are a few questions that might be helpful:

  • Have I taken time to understand all the terminology?
  • Am I spending too much time on the less important parts of this article?
  • Are there any issues that the authors did not consider?
  • Do I have any reason to question the credibility of this research?
  • What specific problem does the research address and why is it important?
  • How do these results relate to my research interests or to other works which I have read?

Adapted from text originally created by Holly Burt, USC Libraries, April 2018. Thank you, Holly!