A Better Way to Read Journal Articles

Getting better at reading is one of the best ways to increase your research output. Yet, we spend very little time learning or practicing reading or recalling what we’ve read. So here are 5 tips to improve your reading and recall:

  1. Take notes as you read, not only when you write.
  2. Use a citation manager.
  3. Don’t read the entire article.
  4. Don’t read from front to back.
  5. Read the easy stuff first.


Hi there, bakers, writers, and rock stars! For those of you that are in struggle town when it comes to reading, here are 5 tips that I think that can help your reading improve. Particularly, as it relates to scientific research.

So, tip number 1 is to take notes as you read, not as you write. For so many of us, we just highlight articles. Highlight sections that we think are relevant to us as we go, and what I think would be a much better strategy and what works a lot well much better for me is to take notes as I read the article. So, if I read a section of an article or a whole article, I’ll write a summary of a couple of lines for the entire article. I’m not trying to capture everything, and I still highlight. But what I’m trying to do is use another method to help me remember. It helps me remember in 2 ways. The first way is in terms of you know, the kinesthetic of typing or writing. The 2nd way is that it helps me remember because I can actually recall it. I can I type it up. So I can you know, put that into a list or a database or a word document, and I can then search for the keywords that I might have used when I’m summarizing an article. So, tip number 1 is to write as you read not just or to summarize as you read, not just only when you’re writing something else up.  

The next tip is to use a citation manager. So obviously, that makes it really easy to insert citations into your article that you might be writing yourself. But if you use a citation manager in general to manage your reading, you can you know, move things around into a reading poll to read pile, you can categorize them if that’s how you want to work. But importantly, those summaries we created in step 1 can go into your citation manager, and then what you’ll find is you can use those summaries as part of the search engine functionality of your citation manager. So, if you’re looking for that article where you recall that something happened or someone did something, if you’ve captured that in your summary or if they’ve captured it in their abstract or some other part that might be in your citation manager database, you can find it more easily. So that’s tip number 2 to use a citation manager.  

The next tip is to be kind to yourself and recognize that not everything that you select to read is worth reading. When I was going through university, and even up until recently, I whatever reason if I decided to read a book or an article or a report, I would whatever reason forced myself to read the entire thing. I’ve now learned that just isn’t necessary for lots of reasons. I might start reading and get part way through, and realize that it’s not relevant to me or my situation or the situation that I’m currently reviewing. So definitely, be kind to yourself, and you don’t need to read the entire article. If you do stop reading the article, note that in your summary the reason why you stopped reading. It could be that it was boring. It could be that it was really hard to understand. It could be that you needed to get another level of understanding or read some other background material before you could continue reading that article. So, the tip number 3 is you don’t need to read the entire article.  

Tip number 4 is that even though we write books in a certain order or we write articles in a certain order, there is no rule that says you need to read it in that particular order. Indeed for journal articles, I would highly recommend you read them out of order. Even though we might write them in introduction methods, results, and discussion, I suggest you read it in out of order. So yes, you probably want to read the title first. That’s probably going to be the thing that gets you to read the abstract, then you want to read the abstract. And that’s going to be the thing that gets you to want to read, I would next suggest the discussion. Then once you’ve read the discussion, if you still think it’s worth reading or you want to get more information, then you might skim through the results. Particularly, you might focus on the the headings or the figures that are used in the results section. And then if that’s something else that you want, if you still want to continue reading then you might read the methods. You might read the introduction. So, that might be the order that you read in. But yes definitely, tip number 4 is be okay with the idea of reading out of order.  

And the final tip to improve your reading is to read the easy stuff. First, so let’s say, you’re in a new to an area you might be starting out in your PhD or you might be transitioning from one research group to another, and there’s a bunch of reading that you need to catch up on, my advice is to read the easy stuff first. So, most likely the easiest stuff is going to be what’s in a book. That could be a textbook or it could be a popular book. And the popular book or the textbook might be aimed at a lay audience or some more non-expert audience, I should say. And then progress up and again, when you’re reading those books, you don’t again, you don’t need to read the whole thing. You don’t need to read every single chapter. You don’t need to read it in order. You might pick out the sections that you think are going to be most relevant to you. And then once you move from that material, you might go into literature reviews which I think most people is where they focus when they first move into a new area. And then in terms of your reading of actual articles, if you’re still coming up to speed with your article itself or your area itself, I should say then reading the introduction might be more important to you. So, you might read first the title, then the abstract, then the introduction. Rather than skipping straight through to the discussion or the results before you read the introduction.

So, there you go, 5 tips to help you get on top of your reading. I hope that helped.