I often recommend journal articles as the most valuable resource for the budding scholar. They are typically shorter, more accessible, and more current than published books. But, they can also be more difficult to read if you don’t know what you’re doing.
As a recent article on Inside Higher Ed points out, reading a journal article is very different from reading Harry Potter, something I hope you’ve already noticed. But, you may not have given a lot of thought to the specific reading strategies that are most helpful for digging into a scholarly article. So, building off the suggestions offered in that article, here are my tips for using journal articles effectively.
- Determine your purpose and reading strategy and for the article. Are you reading this for background information on a topic and will therefore skim through it reasonably quickly? Or, does the article deal with a key argument that you need to engage closely?
- Identify the main point of the article. Pay close attention to the abstract and introduction as these will typically tell you exactly what the article is going to do. Once you’ve identified the primary claims the author makes, feel free to stop reading if you no longer think that it will accomplish your primary purpose (see step 1).
- Quickly skim the rest of the article. Using headings, introductory/summary paragraphs, and the article’s conclusion, you can usually get a very good sense of the author’s main points and the structure of the argument. If your purpose and reading strategy dictate a relatively quick engagement with the article, this may be all you have to do. (I’d say that I never get past this point with at least half of the articles I read, maybe more.) Even if you’re sure that you’ll need to engage the article more deeply, get a sense of the whole article before you try digging into the parts. You’ll understand each step of the author’s presentation better if you know how it fits within the whole argument.
- Pay attention to footnotes. As you’re quickly skimming the article (step 3), take a look at the footnotes. That will help you assess what kind of article you’re dealing with. Is it heavily researched/documented, or more of an essay offering largely the author’s thought on some subject. It it largely dependent on secondary sources, or does it engage directly with primary source material? Do they contain a lot of argumentation, or are they mostly lists of resources? A quick glance at the footnotes will help you understand what the article is doing and whether it is still useful for the purpose you identified in step 1.
- Summarize the article in your own words. My students know that I’m a big fan of writing a short summary of any research article or book that you pick up. It’s very helpful when you’re writing a paper. And, after a few years, you’ll have developed an outstanding research database for future work. A few quick sentences summarizing the article’s main point, key contributions, and your assessment, will suffice for later reference.
- Take notes, but not too many. Many times, your summary will suffice and you won’t need to take notes at all. If you need to engage the article more deeply, identify the most important quotes that you can refer to later when you engage the article in your paper. But, resist the temptation to take a lot of notes. It’s time consuming, and you will probably never use the majority of those notes. If the article has so much good content that you think you’ll need a ton of notes, copy the whole article and stick it in your file for later reference. (When I do this, I make a note with the summary that the article is now on file so that I don’t forget later.)
(For the rest of my Tips for the Th.M., see this roundup.)