Monday, August 29, 2005

On reading academic articles

As part of my blogging experiences, I often write notes and summaries on academic articles that I read in librarianship or in my other areas of interest. Students at all levels, undergraduate as well as graduate, often have to read academic or peer reviewed articles for various reasons: research for a paper, class assignment, presentations, etc. For people who may be wondering how do you actually read one of these articles, there is a nice post at the Wanderings of a Student Librarian with some useful advice on how to read a journal article. In addition, I would add a few things:

Many academic articles have a certain structure. This lends itself to the scanning and looking over that the Student Librarian suggests. For example, many articles will include a literature review. What they are doing there is giving you a summary of key articles and materials in the field leading to the article you may be reading. A literature review will often give you a good picture of how a field has been researched, what is considered to be important so far, and places the research of the article in context.

Always look for the main idea of the article. What is the author arguing or trying to prove? For all the reputation academic articles have about being dry, they will often write something like "this article will establish that X. . . ." A reader then can simply look for how the author proves X.

If it is an article that presents empirical research, or other type of scientific research, it often has a section on the method they used. This is where the author explains how the research was done. If the author did a survey, this would explain who was surveyed, the size of the sample, and the formulas they used to get the results. Depending on the reason you are reading the article, you might be able to glance over the method section and pay closer attention to the discussion. This is, as the name implies, where the results are discussed. This is where readers learn why the numbers or figures are important and what they reveal. However, if you are in a research methods class studying how to do research like the research in the article, you may need to look at the methodology more closely.

As the Student Librarian argues, readers need to read the article actively. If it is for a class, you do need to read it before you go to class. However, as she states, it does not mean you have to know it all by heart. If it is for a class, make notes, jot down questions, and bring them to class. If you are reading for professional development, or to keep up, you also need to be reading actively. Making notes to yourself can also be a useful way to get better understanding. A good summary is often a good tool to understanding an article. It works for me. For some professionals, a reading group may be a good idea as a way to discuss and engage with some academic material. Often librarians, as well as other professionals, will get together and agree on reading certain articles to discuss as a group. For students, this is another reason for having study groups. Another trick for students may be re-reading. After class, once you get those questions answered about the reading, go back and look at the article again. You may discover things you did not see before or have a better understanding. Just some ideas. Hope they help.

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