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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.

Reading a Scholarly Article or Research Paper

Identifying a research problem to investigate usually requires a preliminary search for and review of the literature so as to gain an understanding about how scholars have examined a topic. Scholars rarely structure research studies in a way that can be followed like a story; they are complex and detail-intensive and often written in a descriptive and conclusive narrative form. However, in the social and behavioral sciences, journal articles and stand-alone research reports are generally organized in a consistent format that makes it easier to compare and contrast studies and to interpret their contents.

General Reading Strategies

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 problem you want to investigate. As you review more and more studies, 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. Below are recommendations on how to read each section of a research paper effectively. Note that the sections to read are out of order from how you will find them organized in a journal article or research paper.

1.  Abstract

The abstract summarizes the background, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions of a scholarly article or research paper. Use the abstract to filter out sources that may have appeared useful when you began searching for information but, in reality, are not relevant. Questions to consider when reading the abstract are:

  • Is this study related to my question or area of research?
  • What is this study about and why is it being done?
  • What is the working hypothesis or underlying thesis?
  • What is the primary finding of the study?
  • Are there words or terminology that I can use to either narrow or broaden the parameters of my search for more information?

2.  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 should provide the main argument and theoretical framework of the study and, in the last paragraphs of the introduction, describe what the author(s) intend to accomplish. Questions to consider when reading the introduction include:

  • What is this study trying to prove or disprove?
  • What is the author(s) trying to test or demonstrate?
  • What do we already know about this topic and what gaps does this study try to fill or contribute a new understanding to the research problem?
  • Why should I care about what is being investigated?
  • Will this study tell me anything new related to the research problem I am investigating?

3.  Literature Review

The literature review describes what is already known about a topic. Read the literature review to obtain a big picture perspective about how the topic has been studied and to begin the process of seeing where your potential study fits within this domain of prior research. Questions to consider when reading the literature review include:

  • What other research has been conducted about this topic and what are the main themes that have emerged?
  • What does prior research reveal about what is already known about the topic and what remains to be discovered?
  • What have been the most important past findings about the research problem?
  • How has prior research led the author(s) to conduct this particular study?
  • Is there any prior research that is unique or groundbreaking?
  • Are there any studies I could use as a model for designing and organizing my own study?

4.  Discussion/Conclusion

The discussion and conclusion are usually the last two sections of text in a scholarly article or research report. They reveal how the author(s) interpreted the findings of their research and presented recommendations or courses of action based on those findings. Often in the conclusion, the author(s) highlight recommendations for further research that can be used to develop your own study. Questions to consider when reading the discussion and conclusion sections include:

  • What is the overall meaning of the study and why is this important? [i.e., how have the author(s) addressed the "So What?" question].
  • What do you find to be the most important ways that the findings have been interpreted?
  • What are the weaknesses in their argument?
  • Do you believe conclusions about the significance of the study and its findings are valid?
  • What limitations of the study do the author(s) describe and how might this help formulate my own research?
  • Does the conclusion contain any recommendations for future research?

5.  Methods/Methodology

The methods section describes the materials, techniques, and procedures for gathering information used to examine the research problem. If what you have read so far closely supports your understanding of the topic, then move on to examining how the author(s) gathered information during the research process. Questions to consider when reading the methods section include:

  • Did the study use qualitative [based on interviews, observations, content analysis], quantitative [based on statistical analysis], or a mixed-methods approach to examining the research problem?
  • What was the type of information or data used?
  • Could this method of analysis be repeated and can I adopt the same approach?
  • Is enough information available to repeat the study or should new data be found to expand or improve understanding of the research problem?

6.  Results

After reading the above sections, you should have a clear understanding of the general findings of the study. Therefore, read the results section to identify how key findings were 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 when reading the results section include:

  • What did the author(s) find and how did they find it?
  • Does the author(s) highlight any findings as most significant?
  • Are the results presented in a factual and unbiased way?
  • Does the analysis of results in the discussion section agree with how the results are presented?
  • Is all the data present and did the author(s) adequately address gaps?
  • What conclusions do you formulate from this data and does it match with the author's conclusions?

7.  References

The references list the sources used by the author(s) to document what prior research and information was used by when designing their study. After reviewing the article or research paper, use the references to identify additional sources of information on the topic and to examine critically how these sources supported the overall research agenda. Questions to consider when reading the references include:

  • Do the sources cited by the author(s) reflect a diversity of disciplinary viewpoints, i.e., are the sources all from a particular field of study or multiple areas of study?
  • Are there any unique or interesting sources that could be incorporated into my study?
  • What other authors are respected in this field, i.e., who has multiple works cited or is cited most often by others?
  • What other research should I review to clarify any remaining issues or that I need more information about?

NOTE:  A possible final strategy is to copy and paste the title of the article you read into Google Scholar. If it appears, look for a "cited by" link followed by a number. This number indicates how many times the study has been subsequently cited in other, more recently published works. This can be effective for expanding your review of pertinent literature based on a study you find useful. The same strategies described above can applied to reading articles you find by reviewing any cited by references.

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article (Interactive tutorial). Andreas Orphanides, North Carolina State University Libraries, 2009; Day, Trevor, Julie Letchford, Hazel Corradi, and Thomas Rogers. "Devising an Online Resource to Help Undergraduate Science Students Critically Evaluate Research Articles." Journal of Academic Writing 5 (2015): 1-19; Hendrick, Robert C., and Walter R. Thompson. "Reading Research 101." ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal 20 (2016): 9-13; How to Read an Article in a Scholarly Journal (Research Guide) Cayuga Community College Library, 2016; Jordan, C. H. And Zanna, M. P. "Appendix: How to Read a Journal Article in Social Psychology." In The Social Psychology of Organizational Behavior: Key Readings. L. L. Thompson, editor. (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2003), pp. 419-428; Laubepin, Frederique. How to Read (and Understand) a Social Science Journal Article. Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ISPSR), 2013; Lockman, Tim. How To Read a Scholarly Journal Article (YouTube Video). Kishwaukee College Library, 2012; Library Research Methods: Read & Evaluate. Culinary Institute of America Library, 2016; Van Lacum, Edwin B., Miriam A. Ossevoort, and Martin J. Goedhart. "A Teaching Strategy with a Focus on Argumentation to Improve Undergraduate Students’ Ability to Read Research Articles." CBE-Life Sciences Education 13 (2014): 253-264; Shon, Phillip Chong Ho. How to Read Journal Articles in the Social Sciences: A Very Practical Guide for Students. 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2015.

Reading Tip

Specific Reading Strategies

Effectively reading scholarly research is an acquired skill that involves attention to detail and an ability to comprehend complex ideas, data, and theoretical concepts in a way that applies logically to the research problem you are investigating. Here are some specific reading strategies to consider.

As You are Reading

  • Focus on information that is most relevant to the research problem; skim over the other parts.
  • Read content out of order! This isn't a novel; you want to start with the spoiler to quickly assess the relevance of the study.
  • Think critically about what you read and seek to build your own arguments; not everything may be entirely valid, examined effectively, or thoroughly investigated.
  • Look up the definitions of unfamiliar words, concepts, or terminology. A good scholarly source is Credo Reference.
Highlighting Key Points and Taking Notes

Taking notes as you read will save time when you go back to examine your sources. Here are some suggestions:

  • Mark or highlight important text as you read [e.g., you can use the highlight text feature in a PDF document]
  • Take notes in the margins [e.g., Adobe Reader offers pop-up sticky notes].
  • Highlight important quotations; consider using different colors to differentiate between quotes and other types of important text.
  • Summarize key points about the study at the end of the paper.
Reflecting on What You Have Read

Write down thoughts that come to mind that may help clarify your understanding of the research problem. Here are some examples of questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I understand all of the terminology and key concepts?
  • Do I understand the parts of this study most relevant to my topic?
  • What specific problem does the research address and why is it important?
  • Are there any issues or perspectives the author(s) did not consider?
  • Do I have any reason to question the validity or reliability of this research?
  • How do the findings relate to my research interests and to other works which I have read?

Adapted from text originally created by Holly Burt, Behavioral Sciences Librarian, USC Libraries, April 2018.

Another Reading Tip

When is it Important to Read the Entire Article or Research Paper

Laubepin argues, "Very few articles in a field are so important that every word needs to be read carefully." However, this implies that some studies are worth reading carefully. As painful and time-consuming as it may seem, there are valid reasons for reading a study in its entirety. Here are some examples:

  • Studies Published Very Recently -- the author(s) of a well written study will provide a survey of the most important or impactful prior research in the literature review section. This can lay a foundation for understanding how scholars in the past addressed the research problem. In addition, the most recently published articles or research reports will highlight what is currently known and what gaps in understanding currently exist about a topic.
  • Surveys of the Research Problem -- some papers provide a comprehensive analytical overview of the research problem. Reading this type of study can help you understand underlying issues and discover why scholars have chosen to investigate the topic. This is particularly important if the study was published very recently because the author(s) should cite all or most of the key prior research on the topic.
  • Highly Cited -- if you keep coming across the same citation to a study, this implies it was foundational in establishing an understanding of the research problem or the study had a significant impact within the literature [positive or negative]. Carefully reading a highly cited source can help you understand how the topic emerged and motivated scholars to further investigate the problem.
  • Historical Overview -- knowing the historical background of a research problem may not be the focus of your analysis, but carefully reading a study that provides a thorough description and analysis of the history behind an event, issue, or phenomenon can add important context to understanding the topic.
  • Innovative Design -- some studies are significant because the author(s) designed a unique or innovative approach to researching the problem. This may justify reading the entire study because it can motivate you to think creatively about pursuing an alternative or non-traditional approach to examining your topic of interest.
  • Cross-disciplinary Approach -- reviewing studies produced outside of your discipline is an essential component of investigating research problems in the social sciences. Consider reading a study that was conducted by author(s) based in a different discipline [e.g., an anthropologist studying political cultures] because it can generate a new understanding or a unique perspective about the topic.

Laubepin, Frederique. How to Read (and Understand) a Social Science Journal Article. Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ISPSR), 2013; Shon, Phillip Chong Ho. How to Read Journal Articles in the Social Sciences: A Very Practical Guide for Students. 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2015.