Tips for reading academic journal articles

Academic journal articles are perhaps the most difficult pieces of text university students are required to read. They tend to feature the most challenging characteristics of academic text: their density of argument, frequent use of specialist research and references to other studies all combine to form significant barriers to understanding. Equally, students need to use journal articles as references in assessed coursework from the start of their degrees, so reading them can’t be avoided. This post will present some tips and strategies to help students manage reading journal articles.

  • Bullet point the abstract

Academic article abstracts are expertly compressed summaries. This is key to their difficulty, as each sentence introduces then develops a subject with greater precision than sentences in a newspaper articles, blogs or a novel. I find that students benefit from copying the abstracts into a word document and then bullet pointing. This transforms the resulting text into a series of separated sentences which makes the relevant sentences stand out. 

  • Don’t read the research paragraphs

Academic journal articles are not written for an undergraduate audience. They are written by academics for their peers, generally to present primary research relevant to areas of debate and inquiry within the academic discipline. For this reason, a student needs to be selective about which sections to read and which not. The paragraphs which present the primary research rarely contain much value for undergraduates, as their purpose is to show the validity of the research to professors and PHD holders.

  • Establish key terms and then locate in the text

Firstly, research questions are excellent for identifying the exact information you need from a text. Forming who, where, why, when, what and how questions on the research topic is a great first step to take before starting to read. You can then search the article for specific answers, rather than read in a general way.

Secondly, remember that digital versions of the journal article have a search function which will highlight any key terms you search for. This is incredibly useful for finding relevant paragraphs and sentences as quickly as possible.

  • Read the conclusion/final section early 

The information which you need from the journal article is likely to be in the conclusion, or referred to there. If you find everything you need in the conclusion, good news, but if not, then any reference to your keywords there will help you locate the relevant paragraph in the text. Remember that conclusions in academic writing have a summary function, so a conclusion should act as a map of the article, directing you to the paragraph you need.

  • Use maximum reading strategies

Now is the time to use readings strategies to make the text more accessible. If you’re lucky enough to have done a foundation course, or studied academic skills, then perhaps you’re familiar with the following strategies:

  • Read the first sentence of each paragraph. This should create a summary understanding of the entire article.
  • Examine sub-headings/diagrams/pictures. As an international student, making sense of these can be a fundamental step to creating understanding.
  • Scan for names. The names of models, theories and thinkers can be googled and understood relatively quickly.

So, I hope you find this advice useful and good luck with your reading!

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