A Guide to Reading Academic Articles: The Research Article and the Review Article

Unlike textbooks, academic articles can be hard to read. They are: long, dry, unnecessarily complicated, and sometimes bury the lead. In short, it can be hard to figure out what you are supposed to get out of reading an article for class. This is the first in a series of posts that explores how to successfully tackle the academic articles on your reading list. Each post will cover a few

There are actually several different kinds of articles you might be assigned to read for class. But regardless of what kind of article you are tackling, there are two key steps to reading academic articles:

Step 1: Identify the article type

Identifying the type of article you’re reading can go a long way towards figuring out what your professor wants you to get out the reading assignment. Specifically, knowing the type of article gives you insight into what the author was trying to accomplish by writing the article and in turn, it lets you grab onto the main ideas from the article.

Step 2: Identifying the Key Takeaways

Once you know the goal of the article, you can ask yourself a few key questions about what the author was trying to communicate through the paper. Because each article type has a slightly different goal, you’re going to want to ask slightly different questions for each article type.

In this post, I’ll be going over two of the more common types of articles you’ll find (regardless of your field–physical science, social science, or humanities).

The Research Article

By far the most prevalent type of academic article, the research article is a write up of results from a research project conducted by the author. These types of articles can be identified by their focus on something new: new data, new results, or new application. The goal of a research article is to communicate this new finding to the scholarly community.

To pull out the key information from this kind of article, you’ll want to ask yourself these three questions as you read:

1. What question(s) was the author(s) trying to answer?

2. What did the author(s) argue? (i.e. what was their theory? Or what was their answer to the question?)

Note: often authors will review how other scholars have answered this question in the past–kind of like a critique. Don’t get confused by this. Their answer will usually be pretty obvious through phrasing: “We argue that…” or “This paper suggests that..” etc.

3. How did the author(s) support their argument? What evidence did they use? How did they test their argument to see if they were right?

The Review Article

Review articles are papers that can show you how other scholars answer the same question using different theories (or different answers). These types of articles are great for helping you understand how other scholars agree or disagree. A review article will always present you with two or more sides to an argument and often present themselves as a “state of the discipline” type piece.

To pull out the key information from this kind of article, you’ll want to ask yourself these three questions as you read:

1. What question is the author discussing?

2. How does the author present the different theories (different explanations) by the different authors? How does the author sort the different articles into different groups?

3. What specific theories fit into each section? (Bonus points if you can summarize each of these into one sentence!)

In the next post, I’ll discuss two other types of articles that you’re likely to stumble across: the case study and the book chapter.


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