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Feb 20th, 2023

An Introduction to Reading Academic Articles

Academic articles, also called scholarly articles, are informative papers written by experts, typically published in peer-reviewed journals. This means other experts have read the article and agree it is worth sharing through publishing. These articles can take a lot of forms. They could describe a single person’s medical journey, discuss the historical impact of a piece of technology, explore a ten-year study on a food additive, or so much more! 

This post will be a general introduction to the typical parts of an academic article, what they mean, and why they are important. Let’s get started! 


Start at the Top 


So you’ve found an article – and you probably used the title right away. Most article titles are descriptive and tell you a bit about what the article contains. The title above tells us that the subject is capybaras, the intervention studied is hot spring bathing, and the effects demonstrated are measures of comfort and dermatological changes.  

We also know right away the article is recent by looking at the publication date. The article has two authors, and we can find out more about them by clicking the links. This can be important – we might want to see what else they have written, where they are located, or how to contact them. Yes, you can email an author about their work – many would be happy to answer questions or share their knowledge.  


We can also see where the article was published (including its volume and sometimes issue number) and get important information for citing it, if we need to do so. But this is typically all we can get from the top level of our article.  

Let’s look at the next piece – the abstract.  


Read the Abstract 

Abstracts are basically summaries of the article. They are a great way to decide if you want to download the full article or not. When present, they are usually just under the title, and before the first section of the paper. Sometimes they are labelled and even use their own headers.  

Let’s look at an example. 


The purpose of this study was to clarify dermatologically the favorable effects of hot spring bathing on the rough skin in Capybaras. Non-volcanic hot springs used in this study showed alkaline quality of water (pH 9.3), containing sodium and chloride ions. The normal skin in Capybaras was characterized by the presence of relatively thick epidermis with mild alkaline state (pH 8.26). The dorsal skin had melanin granules in the basal layer. Their rough skin affected in the Japanese cold winter was improved by daily bathing in an alkaline hot spring. The skin properties returned to the normal skin conditions (moisture, melanin and erythema values) observed in the summer. The facial expression mainly changes in the eyes was scored to evaluate comfortable status. The comfortable status during hot spring bathing significantly increased as compared with that observed before bathing (p < 0.01). The thermography revealed a heat retention effect of body temperature after hot spring bathing for 30 min. In conclusion, this study demonstrates that hot spring had significantly comfortable and dermatological effects on the basis of evaluation for the skin and body conditions in Capybaras. 

This abstract is telling us about what the article studied. It tells us why it was studied (purpose) what was studied (capybaras, skin, bathing, comfort) how it was studied (details on the water, capybara skin qualities). It also states an overall conclusion on what the study found.  

What is missing? The where (where the study took place) and when (how long) are not explained here. There are also other details which would likely be found in the full article, which will include in-depth looks at how the study was done, why it was done, and the exact changes observed. To get all these juicy tidbits, a thorough read is necessary.  

The abstracts usually tells you enough to help you decide if you want the full article. But how do you read it without information overload? Here are some tips.  


Dig in to the Full Text 

  • Use headings and subheadings to guide your way 

You might want to start with the introduction, then skip to the results and discussion. Leave the often trickier middle portions to be digested after you get a better idea of just what the article is about, overall.  

Try skimming through and see what sticks out to you, then dive in to read more about those interesting parts! 

  • Take a lot of notes 

Jot down questions you have, highlight (easy to do with EndNote), and note what appears to be most relevant to you.  

Once you begin to read the article line by line, you may want to open up a word document and start copying and pasting over sentences and paragraphs to summarize, paraphrase, and quote in your paper. Just make sure you reference properly! (See our citation guides for help).  

  • Carefully read tables, graphs, figures and appendices 

Make sure you look at all the information provided. Is there a separate link or section, often at the end of the document? Supplemental data, raw statistics, and other nitty-gritty details can strengthen your references and arguments significantly.  

You can also use data to create your own tables and charts. In any case, remember to cite, cite, cite! 

  • Use the bibliography and look for similar articles 

Check out what the paper cited. Sometimes you will find a historical reference that has had a ton of impact on the area of study.  

Look for a “similar articles” section on the article result page. This will show you other, similar things in the journal or database you are browsing and is a great way to find more information on a topic.  

Want to learn more? Check out these links or ask a librarian! 

YouTube has a ton of video tutorials on reading scholarly papers 

This infographic on reading scientific papers is a nice reference to save 

Your HPU librarians are happy to help you find what you need, an answer your questions! 

-Blog post by Allison Cruise, Wanek Center Librarian

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