When reading a research article, you can start by reading the title of your article carefully and then read the abstract to orient yourself to the article. You might also examine the headings in the article to see how it is structured, but then you need to bite the bullet and read the entire article.
The three biggest questions you should try to answer as you read the article are (1) What was the research study about?, (2) How was the research conducted?, and (3) What did the researchers find? That is, what were the results?
That's the big picture for reading an article. Now let's move on to a few more tips for reading articles. Our focus is on empirical research articles (i.e., articles that report studies where data were collected and results were provided).
1. Read the Abstract. This will give you a quick summary and overview.
2. Read the Introduction. This section identifies the purpose of the article, reviews the related literature, and lists the research questions or hypotheses addressed in the research.
- When you finish this section, you will know what the researcher wanted to learn by conducting the research study.
3. Read the Method section. This section tells you who the research participants were, what kind of data collection instruments were used, and how the research study was conducted. You should never skip this section because the information in it is crucial for judging the quality of the research study. This section also is important because you are taking a course on research methods and this is where the researchers explain how they conducted their research. For studies that make claims about cause and effect, focus specifically on how the study is designed and the controls that are included to eliminate confounding extraneous variables because this affects the quality of the research. You can learn a lot about how to do good research by studying method sections in high quality research articles.
- When you finish this section, you will know how the researcher collected the data used to answer the research questions.
4. Read the Result section. If you are intimidated by the statistical jargon in a quantitative article then focus on the sentences where the author says what the results mean in narrative form. Pay careful attention to these sentences. The researcher also will state some of the key findings in the abstract and in the discussion section, which can complement your understanding gained from the results section. After reading the method and results sections, think about what conclusions you think can legitimately be drawn from the research study. If the article is a quantitative article, then pay special attention to the findings that the researcher says are “statistically significant.” By the time you finish your research methods textbook, even this technical section should be relatively clear to you.
- When you finish this section, you will know the specific and detailed findings of the research study.
5. Read the Discussion section. This is the section where the researcher summarizes and tries to explain the obtained results, how the study fits into the larger literature, what the practical implications are, and what the next steps should be to continue advancing knowledge in the research area. Check to see if the author goes beyond the conclusions that you though were warranted after you read the results section.
- When you finish this section, you will know what conclusions the researcher drew from the research study and what steps were suggested for future research.
6. Evaluate the research article.
This is something you will do continuously as you read and think about your article. Use the knowledge you gain from reading your research methods text to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the research study.
The following Tables from your book list the exact questions you need to ask as you evaluate a journal article:
- Table 3.7 Checklist for Evaluating a Quantitative Study
- Table 3.8 Checklist for Evaluating a Qualitative Study
- Table 3.9 Checklist for Evaluating a Mixed Research Study
After answering the questions in the relevant table, you need to sum up your evaluation and tell your reader what you liked and disliked most in the article and what you suggest for future work in this line of research. If you can't figure out what to suggest, you just need to review the criticisms and weaknesses that you identified—the future research can attempt to fix the problems you identified! Also be creative in your suggestions for future research, noting related research questions that you think will help advance our understanding in the research area.
Please remember that one of the best ways to learn about research is to read published research articles. Take research articles seriously, but also try to have fun doing it.