While reading academic articles (scholarly journal articles) can be one of the more intimidating aspects of college-level research projects, the purpose, format, and style of scholarly/academic journal articles are rather straightforward and patterned. Knowing the template that scholarly articles follow can enhance your reading and comprehension experience and make these reading materials much less intimidating. Moreover, understanding the purpose of scholarly publication can help you to understand what matters most in these articles.
Information in academic journal articles is presented in a formal, highly prescribed format, meaning that scholarly articles tend to follow a similar layout, pattern, and style. The pages often look stark, with little decoration or imagery. We see few photos in scholarly articles. The article title is often fairly prominent on the first page, as are the author(s)’ name(s). Sometimes there is a bit of information about each author, such as the name of his or her current academic institution or academic credentials. At either the top or bottom of the first few pages, you can find the name of the the scholarly journal in which the article is published.
On the first page of the article, you will often find an abstract, which is a summary of the author’s research question, methodologies and results. While this abstract is useful to you as a reader because it gives you some background about the article before you begin reading, you should not cite this abstract in your paper. Please read these abstracts as you are initially seeking sources so that you can determine whether or not reading the article will be useful to you, but do not quote or paraphrase from the abstract.
At the end of academic articles, you will find a list of Works Cited (also called a List of References). This is generally quite long, and it details all of the work that the author considered or cited in designing his or her own research project or in writing the article. Helpful hint: reading the Works Cited in an article that you find to be particularly illuminating or useful can be a great way to locate other sources that may be useful for your own research project. If you see a title that looks interesting, see if you can access it via our library!
Scholarly sources often contain Literature Reviews in the beginning section of the article. They are generally several paragraphs or pages long. Some articles are only Literature Reviews. These Literature Reviews generally do not constitute an author’s own work. Instead, they are summaries and syntheses of other scholars’ work that has previously been published on the topic that the author is addressing in his or her paper. Including this review of previous research helps the author to communicate his or her understanding of the context out of which his or her research comes.
Like the abstract, the Literature Review is another part of a scholarly article from which you should generally not quote. Often, students will mistakenly try to cite information that they find in this Literature Review section of scholarly articles. But that is sort of like citing a SparkNotes version of an essay that you have not read. The Literature Review is where your author, in his or her own words, describes previous research. He or she is outlining what others have said in their own articles, not offering his or her own new insight (and what we are interested in in scholarly articles is the new information that a researcher brings to the topic). If you find that there is interesting information from the sources that your author discusses in the Literature Review, then you should locate the article(s) that the author is summarizing and read them for yourself. That, in fact, is a great strategy for finding more sources! For more information on Literature Reviews, see section 5.2 “Moving from Summary to Synthesis”.
The “Research Gap”
Somewhere near the end of the Literature Review, authors may indicate what has not been said or not been examined by previous scholars. This has been called a “research gap” in the social sciences – a space out of which a scholar’s own research develops. The “research gap” opens the opportunity for the author to assert his or her own research question or claim. Academic authors who want to publish in scholarly research journals need to define a research gap and then attempt to fill that gap because scholarly journals want to publish new, innovative and interesting work that will push knowledge and scholarship in that field forward. Scholars must communicate what new ideas they have worked on: what their new hypothesis, or experiment, or interpretation or analysis is.
The Scholar(s) Add His/Her/Their New Perspective
Then, and sometimes for the bulk of an academic article, the author discusses his or her original work and analysis. This is the part of the article where the author(s) add to the conversation, where whey try to fill in the research gap that they identified. This is also the part of the article that is the primary research. The author(s) may include a discussion of their research methodology and results, or an elaboration and defense of their reasoning, interpretation or analysis. Scholarly articles in the sciences or social sciences may include headings such as “Methods”, “Results”, and “Discussion” or synonyms of those words in this part of the article. In arts or humanities journal articles, these headings may not appear because scholars in the arts and humanities do not necessarily perform lab-based research in the same way as scientists or social scientists do. Authors may reference others’ research even in this section of original work and analysis, but only to support or enhance the discussion of the scholar’s own discussion. This is the part of the scholarly article that you should cite from, as it indicates the work your author or authors have done.
To conclude a scholarly journal article, authors may reference their original research question or hypothesis once more. They may summarize some of the points made in the article. We often see scholars concluding by indicating how, why, or to whom their research matters. Sometimes, authors will conclude by looking forward, offering ideas for other scholars to engage in future research. Sometimes, they may reflect on why an experiment failed (if it did) and how to approach that experiment differently next time. What we do not tend to see is scholars merely summarizing everything they discussed in the essay, point by point. Instead, they want to leave readers with a sense of why the work that they have discussed in their article matters.
As you read scholarly sources, remember
- to look for the author’s research question or hypothesis
- to seek out the “research gap”: why did the author have this research question or hypothesis?
- to identify the Literature Review
- to identify the the point at which the author stops discussing previous research and begins to discuss his or her own
- Most importantly: remember to always try to understand what new information this article brings to the scholarly “conversation” about this topic?