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English 101: How to Read a Scholarly Article

A research guide for English 101 students

Read for Meaning

Scholarly articles often have lots of technical language and can be difficult to understand. Here are some tips for figuring out just what the article is saying:

  • Identify the claim.
    • What did the researchers set out to prove? (You will usually find this in the Abstract and the Introduction.)
    • Why are the researchers are studying this specific subject? Is there a gap in our knowledge? New information in the field? A current controversy about this topic?
  • Determine the scope.
    • Who or what are the subjects of the study and what are their characteristics – species, geography, gender, age, ethnicity, etc.
    • How many subjects were there? (Conclusions drawn from a study with a large number of subjects usually have more validity than conclusions from a study with a small number.)
  • Evaluate the method.
    • How did the researchers test their subjects?
    • Under what conditions (observation in natural habitat, lab setting, etc.)?
    • What were the independent and dependent variables in the study?
  • Examine the results.
    • Were they significant (mathematically)?
    • If so, what does this indicate about the hypothesis?
  • Find the gaps.
    • What didn’t the researchers study?
    • What might be the next logical follow-up to this research?
    • Did the researchers identify any shortcomings of the study themselves?
    • If there is an opposing viewpoint or contradictory information, was this acknowledged and addressed head on?
    • How might any problems with the study be avoided in future research?

Parts of a Scholarly Article

Most scholarly research articles follow a specific format with the following sections. These sections will always be in this order in a research article:

  • Abstract – A quick summary of the entire article.
  • Introduction – The purpose/hypothesis of the study is stated, and previous research relating to the current experiment is reviewed. (“What We Already Know, and What We Want to Find Out”)
  • Methodology – A very precise accounting how the study was carried out - who were the subjects, under what conditions were they tested, etc. (“What We Did”)
  • Results – The data from the study. Often presented with dense mathematical formulas, and with charts, graphs, or other visual representations. (“Our Numbers”)
  • Discussion – A narrative review of the data and whether it proved or disproved the original thesis. (“What We Found Out and Why We Think It’s Important”)
  • Conclusion – Usually re-states the results in more straightforward language and discusses future directions for research. (“What We Still Don’t Know”)
  • Bibliography – The other research the authors/researchers consulted to understand the issue and design their study.

The "Reverso Oreo" Strategy

Everyone is familiar with Oreo cookies – dry crumbly cookies around a delicious middle.

 

                             oreo cookies

 

Scholarly articles are structured in the reverse of an Oreo, meaning that the “good stuff” is on the outside: the AbstractIntroduction, the Discussion, and the Conclusion. These sections are usually in simpler, more direct language, and speak clearly to the purpose of the study, what the results were, and what the implications of the findings might be.

The “dry stuff” is on the inside of the article – the Methodology and the Results. A key point of the scientific method is that results must be able to be repeated to be considered valid, so the Methodology section shows exactly how the study might be reproduced, but sheds little light on the “big picture” (unless you’re actually going to replicate the experiment).

The statistical analyses in the Results are important, but is just the math verifying the significance of the results.

SO - Read the Introduction, Discussion and Conclusion firstSkip the middle sections (Methodology and Results) until you have a handle on the purpose and findings of the study. Then go back and re-read the article with these sections. Now that you know what the researchers were trying to find out, the data, charts, and graphs will make more sense.

Finding Out More

No research happens in a bubble – it always connects to a larger group of studies on a subject. In order to understand if their study is finding out something new, researchers must explore what has already been researched about the topic, which also provides the context for their current hypothesis.

This information is usually included in the Introduction, where previous research is cited to show what is already known about the subject, and why this study will add something new. These citations link us to additional information, and are often an excellent starting place to find multiple sources on a topic.

As you read, highlight the sections of text that seem most relevant to your topic and have an in-text citation after them – i.e. (Brown & Miller, 2006).
Using the names in the in-text citation, find full citation for the article in the Bibliography. (Scholarly articles will ALWAYS have a bibliography, usually at the end of the article, but sometimes in footnotes at the bottom of the page.)
Read the title to that article. Does it sound like it supports the current research? Is in opposition to it? If you need more than one source on a topic (which is usually the case) would this be a good article to find and read?
If so, find the article using the Full-Text Finder link on the library webpage. Search with the Journal Title from the citation to see if we have the article at the NECC Libraries. Even if we don’t, we can still get it for you through interlibrary loan.
Have Questions? Ask A Librarian!


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