If you’ve ever seen a peer-reviewed article, you know that they can be long and complex. Remember—these are articles written by experts in the field, primarily for use by other experts. Instead of thinking of them as long and complex, think of them as in-depth and highly specialized, with lots of interlocking parts and a lot of helpful information. But just because the parts create a whole, doesn’t mean you can’t break them down into parts again. If you look at each section separately, you’ll find that some are more relevant to you than others.
Video: Strategies for Reading a Scholarly Article by USU Libraries
If you watched the 4 ½ minute video above, you saw how most research articles are made up of an abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion (sometimes summary or conclusion—names for this section differ), and references (or bibliography). Skimming over the methods and results—the two most technical and often longest sections of an article—means you can focus a lot of your time on the other parts, particularly the introduction, which explains the background of the article’s main topic and provides context for the research, and the discussion, which summarizes the findings from the methods and results. As noted in the video, references are good potential sources and may be worth skimming, though of course you wouldn’t “read” the references in the same thorough way as you would the intro and discussion. So even if the paper is 20 pages long, by skimming the methods, results, and references, which don’t require deep reading, you probably only have about 5-6 pages, maybe even less, that will require your focused attention.
Another trick to getting the most from your sources is using active, or annotative, reading. When you read these articles (or your textbook), do you just read them, or do you highlight? Do you underline concepts you want to know more about? Do you write down notes or key ideas? Questions that are raised that the source doesn't answer? Here’s something that you might want to consider trying. It may seem like a lot of work initially, but it pays off when you’re ready to write, and makes it a lot easier for you to find that information when you want it.
By taking notes, either on a separate piece of paper (we recommend this way if you’re using a library book) or by writing in the margins (good for printed scholarly articles or your textbooks), you can more easily see connections between sources. By taking notes as you read the article, your brain starts to really think about what you've read. While you can remember facts you read, writing often helps the brain remember better. It's also easier to go back later when an article reminds you of a note you wrote down in another article, so you can see connections between sources. And let's not forget that you'll need to cite these facts in the body of your paper, complete with page numbers, so writing something in the margin of a printed copy of an article, or on a notecard or separate piece of paper, makes it easier to find when you're going back (include at least the article title and take note of any page numbers when using a notecard or piece of paper--including the title will lead you back to your source for the rest of the citation you'll need).