Reading Research Effectively
Identifying a research problem to investigate usually requires a preliminary review of the literature in order to understand how scholars have approached the issue and to help you determine how to design a study to investigate a problem. Scholars rarely present research studies in a narrative form that can be followed like a story; it is complex and detail-intensive and often written in a descriptive and conclusive form. However, in the social sciences, that form is often organized in a consistent format that makes it easier to compare studies and decipher their contents.
When you first read an article or research paper, focus on asking specific questions about each section. This strategy can help with overall comprehension and with understanding how the content relates [or does not relate] to the topic you want to investigate. As you review more and more studies about your topic, the process of understanding and critically evaluating the research will become easier because the content of what you review will begin to coalescence around common themes and patterns of analysis.
1. Read the Abstract
An abstract summarizes the content of a scholarly article or research paper. Questions to consider when reading the abstract are: What is this article about? What is the working hypothesis or thesis? Is this related to my question or area of research? Use the abstract to filter out sources that may have appeared useful when you began searching for information but, in reality, are not relevant.
2. Read the Introduction
If, after reading the abstract, you believe the paper may be useful, focus on examining the research problem and identifying the questions the author is trying to address. This information is usually located within the first few paragraphs of the introduction. Look for information about how and in what way this relates to what you are investigating. In addition to the research problem, the introduction provides the main argument and theoretical framework of the article. Questions to consider for the introduction include what do we already know about this topic and what is remains to be discovered? What other research has been conducted about this topic? How is this research unique? Will this study tell me anything new related to the research problem I am investigating?
3. Read the Discussion/Conclusion
The discussion and conclusion are the last two sections of a scholarly article or research report. They reveal how the author interpreted the study's findings and offered recommendations or courses of action associated with addressing the research problem. Questions to ask yourself while reading the discussion and conclusion sections include what does the study mean and why is it important? What are the weaknesses in their argument? Does the conclusion contain any recommendations for future research and do you believe conclusions about the significance of the study and its findings are valid? Note that any recommendations for further research could lay the foundation for how you approach your study.
4. Read about the Methods/Methodology
If what you have read so far closely relates to your research problem, then move on to reading about how the author(s) gathered information for their research. Questions to consider include how did the author conduct the research? Was it a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods project? What data is the study based on? Could this method of analysis be repeated? Is the information available to repeat the study or should new data be found to expand or improve understanding of the research problem?
5. Read about the Results
Read the findings of the research study and how it was discussed in relation to the research problem. If any non-textual elements [e.g., graphs, charts, tables, etc.] are confusing, focus on the explanations about them in the text. Questions to consider are what did the author find and how did they find it? Are the results presented in a factual and unbiased way? Does their analysis of results agree with the data presented? Is all the data present? What conclusions do you formulate from this data and does it match with the author's conclusions?
6. Review the References
The list of references, or works cited, shows the prior research used by the author(s) to support their study. The references can be an effective way to identify additional sources of information on the topic. Questions to ask include what other research studies should I review? What other authors are respected in this field, i.e., who is cited most often by others? What other research should be explored to learn about issues I am unclear or need more information about?
Preparing to Read a Scholarly Article or Research Paper for the First Time
Reading scholarly publications effectively is an acquired skill that involves attention to detail and the ability to comprehend complex ideas, data, and concepts in a way that applies logically to the research problem you are investigating. Here are some specific strategies to consider.
While You are Reading
There are any number of ways to take notes as you read, but use the method that you feel most comfortable with. Taking notes as you read will save time when you go back to examine your sources. Below are some suggestions:
As you read, write down questions that come to mind that relate to or may clarify your research problem. Here are a few questions that might be helpful:
Adapted from text originally created by Holly Burt, Behavioral Sciences Librarian, USC Libraries, April 2018.