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Sources in Conversation

This guide is designed to help you synthesize research in your writing.

How to Read a Scholarly Article

Scholarly articles may seem daunting when researching. They often are long and filled with jargon. However, reading them efficiently really just comes down to having the right approach. Following the steps below can help make your research more efficient.

Step One: Write down you research topic or question

Establish what your research topic or research question is. Even a very broad topic gives you a starting point and will help keep you from getting lost and feeling overwhelmed.

Step Two:  Read the Abstract

Once you find an article that might relate to your topic, read the abstract! The abstract summarizes the purpose of the article. As you read the abstract, ask yourself: does this relate to your topic or question? If yes, then save the article for later by downloading the PDF, saving it in a citation manager like Zotero, or copying and pasting the citation information a document. You do not need to read the entire article in that moment. Focus on finding a handful of articles that seem useful. 

Step Three: Skim the Article 

Once you have an article that you think will be useful, skim it! Read the introduction and the conclusion/discussion sections of the article. While reading, ask yourself: does this article provide you with new information about your topic or question? Does it provide a perspective on your topic you haven't seen before? If yes, then skim the other sections of an article to get a better sense of how this article relates to your topic. If no, then put the article aside. You likely don't need multiple articles that cover the same basic information.

Step Four: Close Read the Article

Once you are sure an article is going to be useful to your research, then take the time to close read the article. Close reading is getting up close and personal with the text. While you're reading, take notes about the article, even if it's just summarizing the content. This will help you engage more fully with the article. The more work you do to identify key ideas or bits of information while reading, the less work you will have to do when it comes time to write your paper. 

Helpful note taking styles:

  • Print the article and highlight, circle and otherwise mark while you read (for a PDF, most PDF readers will let you do some version of this).
  • Take notes on the sections, for example, in the margins of the article. 
  • Highlight important quotes or terms addressing different themes or sections of your argument in a different color.
  • Summarize the main or key points in a separate document.

Step Five:  Look at the References 

While this step could fall anywhere in this list, once you have an article that really fits your topic don't forget to look at the references. The references will identify other articles on the topic and can lead you to other sources for you paper. The author has already done a lot of the work in listing key literature on the topic for you. 

Anatomy of an Article

Types of Articles

There are several types of articles that you will encounter in your research. Sometimes your professor may even ask you to find a certain type of article for a project. Knowing what kind of article you are looking at can help you determine if the article will be helpful for your research and what kinds of information it will provide.  Some of the most common article types:

  1. Empirical Study: An empirical study is one that aims to gain new knowledge on a topic through direct or indirect observation and research. This includes quantitative or qualitative data and analysis, and are considered primary sources. These articles report the results of one or more studies or experiments, written by the person(s) who conducted the research. An empirical article will often include the following sections: Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. Look in the title or abstract for words like study, research, measure, subjects, data, effects, survey, or statistical, which might indicate empirical research.
  2. Literature Review: These articles are a synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. These are useful when you want to get an overview of a body of research that you are not yet familiar with. Literature reviews summarize the findings of others' studies or experiments, attempt to identify trends, or draw broader conclusions. Literature reviews are scholarly in nature and are considered secondary sources, however, their references to other articles will include primary sources or research articles. It differs from a systematic review in that it does not aim to capture ALL of the research on a particular topic.
  3. Meta-Analysis: This is a type of research study that combines or contrasts data from different independent studies in a new analysis in order to strengthen the understanding of a particular topic. There are many methods applied to performing this type of analysis. Often, this includes a mathematical synthesis of the results of two or more primary studies that addressed the same hypothesis in the same way. Sometimes you may also see several sets of data from multiple sources run through a new analysis or statistical method.
  4. Case Study: A description of a single case or situation with unique features. A case study is a record of research in which detailed consideration is given to a development of a particular person, group, or situation over a period of time. Many case studies will be used or analyzed in order to illustrate a thesis or principle.
  5. Systematic Review: This is a methodical and thorough literature review focused on a particular research question. Its aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic in an unbiased, reproducible way, often to provide evidence for practice and policy-making. It may involve a meta-analysis.
  6. Literary Analysis: Analysis is the practice of looking closely at small parts to see how they affect the whole. Literary analysis focuses on how plot/structure, character, setting, and many other techniques are used by authors of literature.

Parts of a Scholarly Article

Scholarly articles may often seem unapproachable, but they are really organized in a manner to make identifying a useful article easier for researchers. Scholarly articles are very formulaic in their constructions, knowing this formula makes reading them and identifying useful articles easier.  Almost all articles are constructed using the following ingredients. 

  1. Abstract: A summary of the main points of the article that usually provides the main question the author investigated, the key results of the author's work, and the author's conclusions. 
  2. Introduction: Sets out the author's purpose, what questions they set out to answer, and background on the topic. This section also sets out the author's thesis or argument and will explain why the author's work is important to a field or different from other work done on the topic.  
  3. Literature Review: Not every article has a literature review; sometimes this will be part of the introduction. This section summarizes other research done on a topic and what questions are still to be answered. 
  4. Methodology (Methods and Materials): This section discusses how the author preformed their research or study. This should include enough detail that someone else could replicate their study. If this section is not present it is a good indicator that the article is a secondary source.
  5. Results: In this section, the author lays out all of the data or findings from their study. This could include data tables or visualizations. The author will highlight the most critical pieces of data they found that support their thesis/ argument.  
  6. Discussion/Analysis: This is where the author will lay out their argument about what their results mean. 
  7. Conclusion: This section usually focuses on connecting the author's study and results to the bigger picture. Typically the author will also discuss the questions that are still unanswered about their topic. 
  8. References: The list of sources used by the author in their research.