This post is inspired by a library guide from Cayuga Community College Library which is now longer active [old archived post here].
Reading is somewhat of an art, and like most forms of art, its form needs to conform to the medium that it’s being presented in. If you want to start reading research papers, you need to be acquainted with the typical structure of a journal paper . For most papers published in scholarly journals, that structure would look something like this (with some variance):
- Introduction: Hypothesis/Thesis
- Literature Review
- Research Method
Although there is no universal technique for reading a scholarly paper, there are some useful points that you may want to consider. To understand these points, let’s look at each of the respective parts mentioned in the list above.
The abstract is the summary of the paper that in a sense represents a microcosm of the entire paper: it has an intro, a sentence or two about method, a few lines on the theory and results, and most importantly, the conclusions and/or contributions of the paper. If an abstract has been written well, it should be able to give you a good representation of what the paper is going to cover. Of course, not all abstract have been written properly, and at times, you may stumble upon an abstract that doesn’t explain what the paper is about.
TIP – In my experience, an abstract is good as a mechanism to filter out papers that you’re not interested in, rather than to provide you with a good overview of an entire paper. If the abstract looks promising, you should continue reading, if you notice that the subject area is outside of your area of interest, it may be time to abort.
The introduction provides a background to the subject area that is being studied. If you’re already familiar with the subject area, only a cursory reading of the introduction is necessary. If, however, you’re new to the area, it might be useful to read through the introduction in order to properly position the paper in it’s proper context. In a sense, the introduction provides the outline or research landscape that we discussed in our previous post.
The literature review is a very important part of a research paper. It provides the theoretical reference frame for the research that is being reported in the paper. A good literature review will explain the connections of the various theories that pertains to the research area, as well as provide a historical outlook of how that particular research field has evolved.
TIP – If you feel that the paper does not provide a good overview of the research literature, you may want to search for systematic reviews that cover the subject area in question. This is done by either searching for the keywords that yielded you the paper that you are reading and adding on “systemic review” or by referring to the sources that the author cites in the literature review.
The methods section of a research paper provides the text by which a particular study’s validity can be judged. Reading the method section requires careful reading, just like writing a method section requires careful and detailed writing in order to precisely describe how (for example) an experiment was done, or an interview study was conducted. Regardless of whether the study is qualitative or quantitative in nature, the method section needs to be detailed enough that the reader is able to ascertain the exact method by which the paper’s results were gained.
TIP – When reading the method section, make note of potential issues that could render the results inapplicable for the case that you’re studying. Questions such as: how big is the sample size? How was the margin of error calculated? These and similar questions are important in order to assess the validity of the results. If you’re comparing different papers and notice varying results, to which degree could the discrepancy in results be attributed to varying methods? This is the type of question that you need to have in mind when reading this section.
Results / Data
If the research paper is a five-course-meal, the results section is the main course of the evening. The results section is meant to convey the results that have been gained from the study. Generally speaking, this section does not typically contain a deeper analysis of the results, although this could vary depending on the field in question. You need to identify the key results that have been gained from the study. Often the result section will contain a lot of data, some of which is significant whereas other results may be less important or more tangential to the larger point. A good paper will highlight the most significant results that have been gained; if the author does not highlight this, make sure to browse through the section looking for qualifiers that point to an important finding or result.
Discussion / Analysis
There are some differences in terms of what is usually included in a discussion chapter as opposed to an analysis chapter (and whether that distinction is made at all). If the above result section outlined the findings from the study, the discussion chapter will typically contain a deeper discussion about the significance of the obtained results. What does it mean that “x” was found? How do the results stand in comparison with the broader research literature and how do they relate to what other authors have found? A good discussion section contains an argument with regards to how far the results can be extrapolated (if at all) while explaining the author’s reasoning behind their overall arguments. The general purpose of the discussion is to interpret and explain the significance of the author’s findings with respect to what was known about the research problem that was investigated. Likewise, the author needs to explain how their new or revised insights about the research problem relates to the research literature.
TIP – When reading the discussion section, make sure to take notes of any potential limiting factors and the authors main arguments. Why does the author interpret the results the way that they have done? Are the arguments that they provide in line with what other authors have reported, why/why not? Can the results and the resulting discussion emerge from the adopted research method? All of these are important questions to have in the back of your mind as you are reading through the discussion section.
The conclusion section should be short and include the main conclusions of the author. Ideally, no new information should be introduced here that hasn’t been covered in the previous sections. When reading the conclusion section, make sure to look out for how the author describes the implications of their research. What does their study mean with respect to the theoretical development of the field in question, and if applicable, what does it mean for practice?
Although the references may seem as the least interesting part of the paper, they are in fact one of the most important things about the paper. Contrary to its position in the paper, instead of reading the references last, it may actually be useful to begin a paper by glancing at the references! Why so? Well, for one thing, the references provide you with a word cloud of sorts that identifies all the important authors that have been cited in the paper, and if you’re familiar with the research area, you’ll be able to immediately tell whether or not the paper that you are reading is part of the research literature of the field that you’re studying.
TIP: Searching databases remains as perhaps the most important way to discover new papers. However, the list of references at the end of a useful paper can often provide you with a better reading list of papers to consider reading. This process is sometimes referred to as “snowballing”, seeing as one reference list gives you access to a plethora of papers, and those papers’ references yield an ever greater abundance of more papers to read (and so forth, snowballing into a mountain of useful papers).
Final thoughts on cohesion and the larger picture
Finally, as you are reading different papers, you need to continuously take notes throughout the reading process as well as provide summaries of the papers that you’ve read while reflecting upon the differences between the various papers that you’ve read. This process of reading, cross-checking, and reflecting is accurately described in a library guide at Georgia State University written by Joel Glogowski which summarizes the key points that need to be considered when reading research literature. Glogowski writes:
“Read, summarize or describe each article noting your findings and impressions.
Examine each article for strengths and weaknesses and validity of findings.
Is the author objective? Is the information presented in an unbiased manner?
Try to extract the unique concepts of the article that are central to a full understanding of the topic.
Look for points of difference between the articles.
Note that researchers may favor different methods such as quantitative or qualitative studies, look for what methods were used.
Take thorough notes on each article or book to be included to help ensure that you don’t have to go through them over and over again.”
The important thing here is to read individual papers critically, always keeping in mind the larger context. Each paper is situated within a larger “research landscape” that is made up of all the various papers in that field. To properly understand the importance of the paper that you’ve just read, you need to be familiar with the references that it is citing, as well as those papers that are citing it. Only then can you start to have a somewhat better picture of what the paper is actually about.