A Better Way to Read Journal Articles

If you want to be a successful researcher, you’ll need to read and cite lots of journal articles.
And no matter how quick a reader you are, or how good your reading strategy is, you’ll never read all of the articles you want to. Even if you are able to read an article a day.

And, let’s face it, journal articles are pretty boring reading!

So, here are a few things I have learned (from doing and also from Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks).

Tip 1 – Make notes as you read, not as you write

It is so easy to forget what you have read and downloaded. Having folders that are marked to read or read is great. But how often are you using those? And what happens when you’ve read them? How do you know what’s good or not? By searching through all of the highlighted sections? Or flicking through a bunch of printouts, and hoping something jogs your memory about what section of the article is relevant to what you are doing now? Yes, highlight. Yes, print. AND also write a summary. I’d strongly suggest writing the summary in an electronic form. That way you can search it easily later. And, as Belcher suggests, read, and then summarise without referring back to the article. That way you’ll be using your own words, not paraphrasing. Limit your summaries to a few sentences. A paragraph at most.

Tip 2 – Use a citation or reference manager

Most universities have licenses for their students to use citation or reference managers. There are heaps around. And the nice folks at Wikipedia have created a comparison table too. These programs maintain your list of articles. You can sort them into folders – to-read, read, and summarised. You can generally attach other documents to each citation – e.g., the article itself, a photo of the paper version with the highlights and your summary. Most also have a note section, so if you’re following tip 1 and this tip, I’d combined your summaries into the note section in the citation manager. And that means when you’re looking for that article now the search can cover the notes section as well as other information you might have in your citation manager (e.g., the article abstract).


Tip 3 – Don’t read the entire article

For whatever reason, I always felt if I started reading an article (or a book for that matter) I must read through to the end. But after spending time with Donna McGeorge and here permission granted series I gave myself permission to stop reading if I felt the text was uninteresting and/or not useful to me. That does not mean I cannot change my mind later. But it does mean I get switch texts. And I still summarise what I have read to that point. Including why I stopped reading when I did.

Tip 4 – You don’t need to read front to back

Just like tip 3, I always felt I needed to read articles from front to back. Books too. And reports. But it is not necessary. The IMRD (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion) approach is a great way to standardise the writing process. It also makes the information easy to find. But if you think about it, not everything is necessary to your understanding of the work. Indeed, some of the work (most of it) might be entirely familiar to you. If you’ve been in a particular field for a long time, you probably don’t need to read the introduction. If all of the approaches used to collect data are known to you, there’s probably little value in reading the methods section either. The results section might be more detail than you need right now. So, you skip straight to the discussion. I’d suggest, for most people, most of the time you can read in the following order (stopping when you have the information you need, summarising as you go):

  1. Title
  2. Abstract
  3. Conclusion/Discussion
  4. Results – headings, figure legends
  5. Results – detail
  6. Methods – headings, legends
  7. Methods – detail
  8. Introduction

Of course, if you’re interested in a method rather than a result, then read that section earlier (first even). If you’re new to the field, you might read the introduction earlier (say position 3). And that leads me on to tip 5.

Tip 5 – Read the easy recent stuff first

This is another tip I got from reading Belcher’s work – if you’re new to a field, area, and approach – whatever – start with the easy stuff first. That might mean finding a textbook. Or even a popular book covering your topic for a non-expert audience. Then, move onto more recent work. The stuff you might find in a literature review. Picking the most recent literature review. Then, as you read research articles, read the introductions. Again, focus on the most recent work. Then progress to the stuff that came years ago. Generally speaking, the most recent stuff will be the most relevant to you.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research, and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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