Unit 5: Conducting Independent Research

37 Reading Academic Journal Articles

What is an academic journal?

Academic journals are periodicals in which researchers publish articles on their work. These articles often discuss recent research. Journals also publish theoretical discussions and articles that critically review already published work. Academic journals are typically peer-reviewed. Some search engines identify whether or not articles are from peer-reviewed publications, so look for that information when you do searches.

 What is the peer-review process?

Getting research published in peer-reviewed academic journals usually involves three or four steps.

  1. First, the researcher submits an article for consideration.
  2. Second, the journal editors send the submission to other scholars (usually 3) who do similar work and who are qualified to review the article.
  3. Third, editors evaluate the reviews and decide whether to reject or accept the submission. Usually, the response is either a rejection or an acceptance contingent on the author making revisions.
  4. If the author is asked to make revisions, they must then complete the fourth step, which is to resubmit the article for another round of reviews. Sometimes the article is accepted at this point and other times authors are asked to make further revisions.

The process is meant to make sure that only the best, most clearly written, and rigorously researched articles are published.

Information contained in a standard journal article reporting research:

There is some variation in the way journals format research articles, but there is some standard information that is included no matter what the format. Here are the key components of articles and the questions they answer:

  1. Abstract: Most articles start with a paragraph called the “abstract,” which very briefly summarizes the whole article. Questions you should be able to answer after reading the abstract:
    • What is the main data set used in this paper?
    • What is the main question being asked?
    • What are the most basic conclusions?
    • Should I read this paper? Will it help me with my research?
  1. Introduction (“What is this article about?”): This section introduces the topic of the article completely and discusses what the article contributes to existing knowledge on the topic. Questions you should be able to answer after reading the introduction:
    • What is/are the major research question(s) the authors are asking?
    • Why is this question important to the field or more broadly?
    • How much research has been done on this topic already?
    • How is the research in this article different from what came before?
  1. Literature review (“What do we already know about this topic and what is left to discover?”): A review of existing research and theory on the topic is either included in the introduction or comes after the introduction under its own subtitle. The lit review is meant to discuss previous work on the topic, point out what questions remain, and relate the research presented in the rest of the article to the existing literature. Here should also be a discussion of what the hypotheses were at the beginning of the project.
  1. Methods and data (“How did the author(s) do the research?”): There is always some discussion of the methods used to conduct the study being reported.
  1. Analysis and Results (“What did the author(s) find and how did they find it?”): Another important section or sections will be devoted to discussing the kind of analysis that was conducted on the data and what the results are.
  1. Discussion and Conclusion (“What does it all mean and why is it important?”): Articles typically end by discussing what the results mean and how the study contributes to existing knowledge. Here the research questions are answered and it should be clear at this point whether or not the hypotheses were supported. The conclusion is usually the final section and it typically places the research in a larger context, explaining the importance of the research and discussing where future research on the topic should be headed.

Questions you should be able to answer after reading the conclusions:

  • How do the authors answer the original research question(s) (see Introduction)?
  • What specific data support their answer to that question?
  • What specific data contradicts or confuses their answer to that question?
  • What broader implications for the field, if any, are raised by the results of this study?

Shortcuts to reading academic journal articles

When conducting research, you will encounter dozens of possibilities in your search for sources that may be relevant to your research. Most often you will find more sources than you can possibly read thoroughly in the time you have to do your project, so you will not have time to read everything from start to finish.

Here are some hints on how to sift through the possibilities, discard articles that are less helpful, and recognize potentially important sources.

  1. Read the abstract first: Titles don’t always give much information. The abstract should give you just enough information to let you know the basics of the article. From this you will know whether you should read on or look elsewhere for your project. Some journals print a list of keywords pertaining to the article as well. These are further clues about the article.
  2. Read the introduction and discussion/conclusion next: These sections will give you the main argument of the article, which should be helpful in determining its relevance to you and your project. You’ll also get a glimpse of the findings of the research being reported.
  3. Read about the methods next: If what you’ve read so far interests you, get a sense of how the research was done. Is it a qualitative or quantitative project? What data are the study based on?
  4. Read the analysis and results next: If you decide that you are committed to this article, you should read in more detail about this research.

Using information from academic journal articles in your own writing

  1. Use citations when including information from journal articles.
  2. Avoiding citing information from the abstract. The purpose of the abstract is to help you decide if the article is appropriate / suitable for reading. Any information you cite from the article should be from the body of the article itself, not from the abstract.
  3. If the information is too technical or difficult to understand, it may be very difficult for you to paraphrase. You should probably find a different article.

Watch this video on peer review from libncsu:


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