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Research Guides

How to Read and Understand a Scholarly Article: Home

Scholarly articles can be long and complex. This guide will help you read, navigate, and understand them.

What is a Scholarly Article?

A scholarly article, sometimes referred to as a peer-reviewed article, is one written by an expert or experts in an academic or professional field for other experts in that field.  That usually makes them: 1) excellent sources of information on a certain topic and 2) complex and perhaps even difficult to read or understand.  

Peer-review specifically means that before an article is published it is reviewed by other experts in the field to ensure it is well written, contains new or important information, and uses sound research methods.  

These sorts of articles are often required reading in college courses because the publishing process is very rigorous and produces high quality results.  Knowing how to read and understand them will be helpful throughout college and beyond.  

Where to Begin

Believe it or not, the best way to read a scholarly article may not be all at once!  

You'll want to focus on the Abstract, Introduction, and Conclusions first (look to the right for information on each of those sections).  These parts are at the beginning and end of the article. Focusing on those, while just skimming over the middle of the article, will give you a good idea of the article's purpose and its meaning.  This is especially helpful if you are new to the topic.

Once you've got that down, you should go back and read the whole thing, including the other sections (like methodology, literature review, and references) to get more details and a better understanding of the "big picture." 

The Parts of an Article

Scholarly articles often have the same or similar parts.  Not every article will have every section listed below, but they are the most common.

Abstract: A brief summary of the entire article, including results.  

Introduction: Background information as well as the purpose or hypothesis of the article.  

Literature Review: An overview of existing knowledge (from books, articles, dissertations or other sources) on the topic at hand, highlighting gaps that can be filled.

Methodology: A detailed description of the research methods used to carry out the study (especially in scientific articles).  

Results/Findings: Data from the study (especially in scientific articles). 

Discussion: A narrative style explanation of the results or findings, whether they matched the hypothesis or there were any limitations or problems, and how the results impact the field.

Conclusion: A final overview of the results and suggestions for future areas of research.  

Bibliography/References: A list of all the sources used or referenced in this article, often a good place to look for more information on the topic.


Finding Meaning

Once you've skimmed or read the article a few times, you should have a good grasp on what the author was trying to communicate.  Now its time to find meaning in the article.  Think about:

What is the author's main claim?

How did they (or didn't they) back up that claim?

How was their research limited?  

What gaps have yet to be filled in the topic?  

How do the author's study or findings relate to your research/paper/topic?  

Quick Tips

-Don't get too hung up on jargon.  Use context to get a basic understanding, and highlight terms to go back and look up later if you need to.  

-Break it up!  Don't try to read it all at once.  Instead, break it into smaller parts and re-read them a few times.  

-Skimming is ok!  Especially on your first read-through. 

-Take notes!  Write in the margins or on a sheet of scratch paper and highlight important quotes, findings, and ideas.