How to Navigate & Read Academic Articles
Academic articles are some of the most important resources used by health and wellness writers, but they can be dense and difficult to read, especially if you haven’t read them before. Just one look at the walls of text and the highly specific vocabulary, it can feel like you’re reading a whole other language! But knowing the layout of a study and how to understand what’s being said can help you to research the source material and draw your own opinions there. Not only can this make you more informed, but it can also prevent you from falling for misleading or incorrect claims.
With that in mind, we can teach you how to identify what type of academic paper you’re reading, how to navigate a study, and shortcuts you can take that will help simplify reading these works.
Different Types of Academic Papers
Depending on who you ask, there are a handful of different types of academic papers that you may encounter, each with a very specific purpose. When you can identify the type of paper you’re reading, it’ll tell you a lot about what kind of research or content you’ll be looking at.
A lot of the time, we’ll link to an article of original research, sometimes called a research article or original article. As the name suggests, the article will report research that has been done personally by the authors. The other common academic article you’ll see us link to is a review article. Unlike the original research article, a review article is a comprehensive summary of all the research on a specific topic, sometimes including decades of original research. These can be useful to show the breadth of research and trends and conclusions in it over the years.
Most of the time, we’ll link to an article of original research or a review article, but there are other types of academic papers.
There are other types of papers, but they are less commonly used in our research for articles. For example, there are short reports or letters, which are quick write-ups summarizing recent findings in original research. These are often utilized when the findings are time-sensitive or being used to encourage further original research. There are also case studies, which are reports of specific incidences. Case studies bring experts’ attention to certain phenomena that was observed, like a new illness or chemical reaction. Finally, there are methodologies, which are used to report new experimentation methods, procedures, or tests with any explanations, benefits, and weaknesses included. Since these types of academic papers (i.e., short reports, case studies, and methodologies) are generally more for experts within a field, it’s less likely that you’ll see us link to them on Medicareful Living.
Sections of a Study
Most academic articles follow a basic format, making it really convenient to scan for important information. Each section covers specific types of relevant details from the study or review of studies. We’ll give you a brief overview of the common sections below.
- Abstract: If you’re looking for a quick overview of the paper, this is it. An abstract will quickly cover the background of the issue, the hypothesis (or theory they’re testing), how they tested the hypothesis, the results, and the researchers’ conclusions. They are extremely useful for getting a snapshot of the study.
- Introduction: The Introduction will cover the context and background of the study and how it fits into the other research on the topic. It will also discuss the importance of the subject and the study itself. The hypothesis of the entire study will be at the introduction’s end.
- Methodology: In the Methodology section, the authors explain the “how” of the study. They will outline what they did during their study or review, what materials and equipment they used, and the exact steps they took. This section should be highly specific so that their study can be replicated by other researchers.
- Results: In the Results section, the authors will report their findings from their study or review. This will include data, figures, and tables so that experts can parse through what came out of the study. There shouldn’t be any interpretation of the results in this section. That comes later. Instead, it should be facts and figures.
- Discussion/Analysis: The Discussion section is where the analysis of the results occurs. Here, the authors will report how their findings relate to their hypothesis, interpret the results, and offer possible explanations. They will also discuss any surprises, limitations, the relevance of their results, and if there is a need for further research.
- Conclusion: Sometimes combined with the Discussion section, the Conclusion is where the authors share their final thoughts on their study. This can often take the form of a one or two sentence summation of the entire findings and how significant those findings may be. The Conclusion is generally short, usually one or two paragraphs, and written to be easily understandable.
- References: The References section is pretty straightforward. It’s where the authors list any other studies or reference papers that they used in their own academic paper. This allows the readers to verify their sources and strengthens the authors’ arguments if they’re based on past findings.
- Tables and Figures: When a paper has Tables and Figures as part of the Results, they may sometimes place those in a separate section at the end of the paper and reference them throughout the Results and Discussion sections. This allows them to keep the text a bit shorter while still having the referenced tables and graphs organized. This won’t appear in every publication, though.
Tips on Reading an Academic Article
1. Start with the Abstract, Conclusion, and Discussion Sections
So, you’re curious about a claim, and you go to check the source, which turns out to be a research paper. What should you do? In this instance, the two places you’ll want to check for an answer is the Abstract and Conclusion. These sections will most likely be where you find the answers you’re searching for. If you wish to go further, the Discussion section would probably be your next stop.
2. Turn to the Other Sections for Smaller Key Details
What are the other sections for, if we’re only really looking at two or three of them? Well, let’s say that you’re curious about how the authors got to those results or want to see how significant the findings actually are? That’s where something like the Methodology section may come in handy. This may tell you that the studies were done on mice or that only 20 people were a part of the study, which could potentially make the findings weaker.
Additionally, looking through the Results section, you could find that the authors had misinterpreted some of the findings. While these are all possibilities, these sections will be less useful to you, as they are meant for other experts in the field.
3. Perfect the Art of Skimming
When you’re looking through an actual academic paper, there are a few things you can do to simplify the whole process. After picking out the sections that are relevant to your search, skim them to locate the key thoughts. Generally, in professional writing, paragraphs begin and end with the key thoughts. The same is true for sections, where the most important concepts are usually at the beginning and end. In this way, you can get the gist of sections without getting bogged down in too much text. This allows you to pick important sections to return to and read thoroughly for more context.
4. Use the Search Function
You can further help yourself by using a search function, like the Find function (or CTRL-F on your keyboard) to search a page for specific phrases or figures. The Find function should show each instance of that exact phrase or number in the document, helping you quickly check the original context.
5. Take Lots of Notes
Finally, if you’re doing a deeper dive than just double-checking figures, take notes throughout your read. It’s easy to get turned around with all the numbers, phrases, and acronyms throughout the paper. It helps to print out the paper and highlight key sections or facts so you can easily return to them later. We also encourage taking notes of important acronyms at the start of your read, since it’s easy to forget and confuse them with other acronyms.
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Reading an academic article may seem daunting. They’re usually long with archaic or specialist language and enough numbers to make your head spin. They can quickly send even experienced readers running. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to read one, or want to fact-check an article, knowing the layout and shortcuts built into these types of articles can turn what may seem like a Herculean task into something much more manageable!
Professor Holly Walters — How to Read an Academic Article
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