How to read an article from an academic journal

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How to read an article from an academic journal

This information is based on a typical academic research article published in the social sciences which covers most of the articles relevant to studies at GIHE.

You have to base your work on the work of experts. A valuable source of authoritative, credible information for your work are the peer reviewed articles published in academic journals. However the very qualities that make these articles useful for you also mean they are not easy to read: they are written for people who already have a deep knowledge and shared understanding of the topic; they deal with complex subjects in great detail; and the language used is dense and technical. Some academic articles can be quite long.

So you need to use information from academic articles, but they are difficult to read. What are the reading strategies to help you find the information you need in an article as quickly as possible? Below are a few tips and techniques.

Know what you are looking for

Even before you start reading, think carefully about the information you need. Are you looking for examples to support your argument? Are you looking for a definition? Do you need some statistical evidence? Do you want to refer to the results of a piece of research? Different sections in an academic article typically contain different types of information, so knowing what you are looking for will help you go directly to the relevant section. This brings us to the next point.

Do not read from beginning to end

An academic article is not an essay, it is not meant to be read from the start to the finish, not the first time you read it at any rate. An academic article is a technical, highly structured text which is divided into certain sections, each of which has a specific pupose. A typical structure of an academic article and the type of information you can find in each section might be:

The title of the article – This contains the keywords of the contents. The title gives you an excellent first indication of how relevant the article may be for your purposes.

The abstract – This short paragraph comes immediately after the title. It is a summary of the contents of the article and so it is extremely useful to get a first overview of the contents. You should always read the abstract first because then you will be able to decide whether it is worth you looking at the rest of the article or not. An abstract often contains the following information:

A statement about the context or background to the article

The aim and thesis of the article

The research method used

Key results or findings

Keywords – Usually five or six keywords, a quick way to judge if this article is relevant for you or not

The introduction – This sets the scene for the piece of research. It gives the broad context of the research topic and the reasons why this particular piece of research was carried out. It may make a claim about why this topic is important.

The literature review – This aims to set out what has already been written about the topic by other authors. It may provide a historical overview of the development of the topic. It may compare and contrast several different theories, models, or research methods used to analyze the topic. It may report the findings or discoveries of other authors in different geographical areas, different industry sectors, different demographics. The literature review usually has a line of argumentation which helps the reader to understand how the current article fits in to what has been previously written.

The literature review tells us what is already known about a topic, but it also highlights a gap in the current state of knowledge, something which we don’t know. The purpose of the research is then to fill that gap, to reveal new information, to increase the current knowledge about the topic. The end of a literature review in this case is often a research question which the rest of the article aims to answer. If the research study is designed to test certain hypotheses, then these hypotheses are often set out at the end of the literature review.

Some academic articles consist only of a literature review. They are designed to provide readers with a full account of the current state of knowledge, or main currents of thought about a particular topic. This type of article can be extremely useful to you as you begin to study in a specific area.

Research method

This section explains exactly how the research was carried out. It makes explicit the approach adopted – qualitative, quantative or mixed methods. It defines the object of study, the population and sampling technique used, the data collection tool or tools, and the data analysis technique. This section is technical and detailed and is designed to prove to the reader that the research method used is valid and reliable. A well written research methods section should allow the reader to test the findings of the article by replicating the research, meaning carrying out the exact same research in a similar context or in a different context to compare and contrast findings. For example, a first piece of research may investigate customer perceptions in luxury hotels in south east Asia. A following study may use the same method to discover customer perceptions in luxury hotels in north Africa. By using the same research method, by replicating the research method, the results of the research studies can be compared and contrasted to identify similarities and differences.


This section details the findings of the research. It show the results of the analysis of the data. The section aims to answer the questions: “What has our research revealed? What have we discovered?”.


If the results section establishes what has been discovered, then the discussion section considers the importance of the findings. It aims to answer questions such as “what are the key findings? What do our results reveal about our object of study? Is there anything surprising or unexpected? How do these findings compare to previous research? What are possible practical implications of the findings?”


A short final section which may make broader comments about how this study contributes to the field of knowledge, and suggests possible future lines of inquiry.


So now you know what the different sections are about, what might be an effective order in which to read them?:

Skim read – read quickly for general understanding

  1. Title and keywords – Is this article relevant to my needs?
  2. Abstract – Will I find the information I need in this article?
  3. Discussion – What are the key results of the study?

If you judge the article is worth your time, read the next sections more closely to gain a deeper understanding of how the research was produced, and how it contributes to the field of knowledge.

  1. Research method – Does the method seem valid? Reliable?
  2. Literature review – how does this research fit into the existing state of knowledge? What is the perspective or thesis of the researchers? Are there any implicit biases in their approach?


Again if you judge the article is worth your time, consider creating an annotated bibliography entry for it.

Use Zotero to store, categorize and share the article.

Use Zotero to create the in-text citation and end of text reference list entry for the article