How to read a research article

A typical research article will contain these sections, in roughly this order:

  1. Abstract: A very short summary of the article.
  2. Introduction: An overview that lays out the context for the study and what research questions will be examined.
  3. Literature review: A summary of the related previous research on the same topic.
  4. Data: A description of the datasets that will be used in the study. Usually includes some descriptive statistics.
  5. Method: A detailed explanation of exactly what was done in the study. This may also include the development of a theoretical framework and predictions for what the study will show.
  6. Results: A brief section that lays out what the author found in a factual manner. This is generally where all of the statistics go.
  7. Discussion: The authors' interpretation of the results, and how the results of this study compare to other studies on the same topic, as well as any implications for practitioners or policy-makers.
  8. Conclusion: An overall summary of the article that generally does not contain new information.

To gain a quick understanding of the article, we suggest reading in the following order:

 

Click on the orange arrows for more information.

 

Abstract

This is usually too short to give you any real detail. However, it is likely to be the first thing you read, and often you will decide whether to read the rest of an article based on the abstract. Abstracts are useful because they generally tell you the data source for the study, the major technique/s the study used, one to three important findings of the study, and potentially also hint at whether the article confirms or contradicts other studies on the topic. Some articles are theoretical (that is, they try to develop new explanations or models for how things might work) whereas others are applied (they try to answer sometimes very specific questions using data from the real-world). If you are looking for information on what works, applied research studies might be more useful for you.

While reading the abstract, ask yourself:

  • Does the question they are addressing fit my topic?
  • Is this type of research likely to give me the answers I am looking for?

Introduction

The introduction often covers the same territory as the abstract, but in a more detailed way. The primary goal of the introduction is to give you a sense of how this study fits into the overall literature and what the study aims to achieve. An introduction will usually tell you whether the study is addressing an entirely new question, improving on previous studies with better data or different techniques, or replicating a different study using a different dataset (for example, replicating an American study using Australian data). The introduction should also tell you what techniques it is using, although not in too much detail. This may allow you to classify the article in terms of gold standard, silver standard, or other evidence. Finally, the introduction may go over the major findings of the study, and how it fits with other studies. This is useful context when reading about the results in more detail.

Sometimes, the introduction to an article will be very long, and can incorporate literature reviews or theoretical discussions. If your goal is to get an understanding of an article in a short amount of time, then it may be helpful to read only the first page or two.

While reading the introduction, ask yourself:

  • What is the problem that the authors are trying to solve? Do I agree that it is a relevant problem?
  • How does this study fit into the overall literature?
  • If the authors discussed any results, what are the findings that the authors think are most important?

Results

After reading the abstract and the introduction, you should have an idea of what specific findings the authors think are most important from the study. At this point, it is often useful to jump to the results section to get a little more detail. A useful first goal when reading the results section is to find the specific number in the tables that led the authors to make the claims they did in the abstract or introduction. Usually the authors will talk you through the major findings in the text of the results section, which will help you find the table that the authors are trying to draw your attention to.

Once you locate the findings that the authors want you to know about, check whether they are statistically significant. However, also check whether the results are large. Is this effect something that is likely to make a big difference in the real world, or is it only a few NAPLAN or percentage points? Look for whether they have consistently found a similar result using multiple methodologies or data sources. This is an indication that the result is less likely to be due to a quirk of the specific data or method being used in this study.

Before leaving this section, think about what you think are the reasons the results are the way you are. Are there different interpretations or multiple possibilities that might have led to results like these?

While reading the results, ask yourself:

  • Are these results meaningful (statistically and educationally significant)?
  • Are all of the results consistent with the specific findings that the authors are emphasising?
  • Are there any other results not mentioned by the authors that I think are important?
  • What do I think is causing these results? Are there multiple interpretations?

Data and method

After getting a sense of the results, you might have specific questions about how the study was done. There might be multiple possible interpretations of the results, or potential criticisms of the study. Some data and method sections are very long and dense, and so it can be helpful to skim these sections with specific questions in mind. Try to find features of the study that might rule out alternative interpretations or criticisms that jumped to mind while reading the results. If you can’t find anything that rules this out, it might be an indication that the study has serious limitations.

While reading the data and methodology, ask yourself:

  • Are there any interpretations or criticisms I had that are accounted for by the features of the study?
  • Is there anything that might not make the study applicable to my context?
  • Is the methodology rigorous and is it appropriate for the claims the authors are making?

Discussion

You should now have ideas about what you think the study means (or, you might think it could mean one of a number of things). It can be useful to see how the authors interpret the results. They might pick up on some implications which did not occur to you. They might also claim that their study says more than you feel the results can support. If you think that there are multiple interpretations of the results, do the authors have convincing arguments for why their preferred interpretation is correct?

Generally, authors tend to discuss what they feel are the limitations of the study in the discussion section. Check to see that they covered all of the potential criticisms that may have occurred to you while you read the results and method sections. If not, then the authors may think that the study is more important or applicable than it really is, and so you might want to take their conclusions with a grain of salt. Also look for whether the authors discuss any limitations which may limit your ability to apply the results of this study to your own situation.

While reading the discussion, ask yourself:

  • Do I agree with the authors’ interpretation?
  • What are the practical implications of the results? How do I use this knowledge?

Conclusion

As the conclusion doesn’t contain any new information, this is less important than some of the other sections. However, conclusions are generally short, and can be helpful to read to cement your understanding of the study and make sure that the authors’ argument makes sense to you.

While reading the conclusion, ask yourself:

  • What is the main point to take away from this article?

Literature review

The literature review section of an article can be very useful if you are interested in getting a more detailed picture of how this study fits in with other similar studies, or an indication of what to read next. However, if you are interested in quickly understanding a particular study in isolation, usually the introduction will be enough to give you a sense of the context for this study.

If you use literature reviews as a source to find further research, remember that this is only what the authors think is relevant. There may be competing theories, dissenting studies, or studies that are less relevant to researchers but more relevant to you (for example, American researchers are probably more interested in studies of American schools than Australian schools). For this reason, it is important to also perform your own literature search. The Clearinghouse has some information for how we conduct our literature searches that may be helpful to you.

If the authors discuss any studies that seem to hold opposing viewpoints or come to contradictory conclusions compared with this study, then you might want to read those studies in greater detail to see which one you agree with more. If the authors do not discuss any studies that do not seem to agree with their viewpoint, then consider performing a literature search yourself to see if any exist.

While reading the literature review, ask yourself:

  • What seems to be the most influential study, or the study that this one is most closely based on?
  • Do the authors discuss studies that seem to hold opposing viewpoints?
  • What should I read next?

End FAQ