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Scientific Articles: How to Read a Research Article

Struggling to read your scientific scholarly article, even though it looks like it might be a perfect fit for your topic?

Try using the info below as a guidepost to help you understand the article.  Not sure what you're looking at? If so, begin by figuring out if you're reading a Research Article or a Review Article.

Sections of Research Articles

When you begin reading a scientific research article, you'll want to remember that each section of the article has a distinct purpose. When reading a scientific research article, you'll see most (if not all) of the following distinctive sections:

  • Abstract: a paragraph summary of the research question and findings
  • Introduction: the research question: what did the scientists set out to know? Also provides context to the study: what did we know about the topic? Who answered the most important questions so far? Will include many citations.
  • Method: the experiment design
  • Results: The data gathered by the experiment
  • Discussion: analyzes the results. What do we understand about the topic after the experiment has been conducted?
  • Conclusion: lists further questions to be studied
  • References or Works Cited: functions just as yours will. What research has been referenced throughout the paper?

Some of these sections may be merged with other sections, have slightly different names, be combined together (results and discussion often share a single section) or may not be labeled, but all should be present in one way or another.

Confused? Take a look at a scholarly research article found in PubMed: 

Cladophora (Chlorophyta) spp. Harbor Human Bacterial Pathogens in Nearshore Water of Lake Michigan is a research article found on PubMedCentral, the government-sponsored free article database. 

The Introduction is unlabeled, but the Materials and Methods section is labeled (and broken into subsections), and Results and Discussions are merged. The Conclusions are the very last paragraph before the references. 

Tips for Reading Research Articles

  • Remember to start with your abstract. The summary will tell you where the authors are heading and help you to fight through confusing sections.
  • Try reading your article out of order! (No one said we have to follow the rules all the time, right?) Start with the abstract, and skim through the Introduction and the Conclusion (Don't see one? Read the Discussion instead.) Note the hypothesis and article findings. Then read the whole article, remembering that the Materials and Methods sections are often long and full of complex concepts.
  • Be careful to be very conscious of whatever section you're reading, because that will tell you the types of info that you're reading: are you in Methods? If so, you're looking at experimental design. Are you looking through Results? If so, you're looking at the data that was gathered, etc., etc.
  • Check out this handy book that discusses reading and critiquing scholarly articles.
  • This article, "To understand a scientific paper, delve into its parts" by Bethany Brookshire (science journalist) also does a good job of breaking down scientific articles. The second article, Four tips for reading a scientific paper, also offers great advice on how to deal with dense language, as well as important questions to ask about any article you read.
  • Remember that you can use reference databases to explain words or concepts that you're unfamiliar with. Try searching Credo or Gale (linked below) to start.

Reading Review Articles

Review articles tend to be a good summary of current research on a topic.   

Make sure that you pay good attention to the introduction of a research article (what question are the scientists trying to address?), and that you pay attention to the major headings in the article, which will tell you how the information was broken down. 

Finally, look at the materials and methods section to get a sense of the study as well: how were articles in the review included or excluded?  What does that tell you about the review? 

Science Research Help

Trying to find a scholarly article?  Here are some specialized guides to searching databases for scientific information:

Have questions about what research or review articles are, how to read research articles, or how to evaluate them? Take a look at the following guides for more information. 

Need some help citing what you find?  You can check out the following links for some guidance:

And, as always, you're welcome to contact me using the information on the right, or schedule a research appointment with a librarian whenever the library is open by clicking "Ask Us for Help" on the right of the page. 

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  • Last Updated: Jan 12, 2024 10:26 AM
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