Video: How to Read a Scholarly Article

Three NC State faculty members share their process and advice for reading scholarly research articles.

  • Transcript

    [MUSIC PLAYING] So you've got another paper to write and you need three research articles. You open up the first article and you are struggling to focus or even know where to start. You'll probably have to read scholarly literature no matter what your major is. Reading scholarly articles is different from most kinds of reading you do because the purpose of a research article is different from most other kinds of writing. Of course, there's format, language, and citations that can be disruptive to your reading process, but it's more than that.

    We sat down with faculty in three different disciplines to learn how they engage with the texts in their field and what advice they would give to students. What is your process for reading a scholarly article?

    So I definitely skim the abstract first. And if the skim feels good, then I'm like, oh, actually, let me pay a little closer attention to the abstract. Yeah, the abstract is like the easiest litmus test. If I get past that, I open the article and go right to the figures because that in theory, is what the reviewers wanted to highlight most-- main takeaways from their research.

    So the standard process that I use is to always check out the abstract first. The abstract is a high level summary that tells you all the good parts of the article, and it helps me understand will this be useful for me to read? Is there information in here that might be new to me? So that helps me decide how I'm going to read through the article. Then I'll next read the introduction.

    If the methods aren't relevant or new, or they're not something I need to know right now, I'll usually skip to the results section before reading the conclusion. And sometimes, I'll skim the references to see if there's something new there that I could then read next.

    I am very much a hands on, tactile person. And so I have to print them out. I know that's probably a little old school, but I have, as you can see, my highlights and I have different color-- color schemes that I use. And I find that tactile process of reading a scholarly article really helps me to engage with what I am reading and absorb it better than if I'm looking at a screen.

    How long does it take you to read a scholarly article?

    Normally reading for everyone, I think, reading an article once is not generally enough to really fully absorb it, even if you are in that discipline. I think it takes-- if you really want to get something out of that article, it takes a couple of passes before you can really mine that information and use it for what you want to use it for.

    If it's something that I need and want to remember, it can take me an hour because that time is also used to take notes and write down the information that I want to save.

    Does your reading process change when you read articles from different disciplines?

    So in a lot of empirical fields like engineering and science, what's really cool about articles is that they tend to follow a really set pattern-- introduction, methods, results, and then discussion. But in the humanities, you end up reading a little bit differently because they're not necessarily packaged quite as predictably.

    And so those articles in that field, I tend to read start to finish, whereas in empirical fields, sometimes you can take the methods out, not read the methods, and still get the main idea from the paper.

    I read pedagogical literature and scholarship straight through, and then I revisit. And it might take me an hour, even though it's a shorter paper because I'm just trying to familiarize myself with the scholastic jargon of pedagogy. So I do my googling thing that I try to normalize for students.

    Until you are a scholar in that specific field, you're not the intended audience for that paper. The intended audience is another scholar in that field, doing that kind of research. And so if you're a student, it can be really frustrating and overwhelming. But again, that's where giving yourself those breaks, writing questions, using resources, and that takes time. So you have to be really diligent with your time management. But the best thing to tell yourself is just not to get discouraged.

    And lastly, what is one piece of advice you would give to a student who was attempting to read a scholarly article?

    Don't be afraid to Google stuff. Embrace the awkward. Like the whole point that you're reading this article is to learn, and that means, inherently, you are going to read a lot of words that you don't understand. And you're going to read about a lot of concepts that you don't know about. If you can find somebody to read it with or discuss it with at the same time and it could be another peer who is equally naive to the field as you are, that's great.

    Well, one is, first and foremost, I think in general, be kind to yourself. And that can look like a bunch of different things. Being kind to yourself is not putting the pressure on yourself to feel like you have to know every single thing. And in order to use this effectively in the classroom, and being kind to yourself looks like giving yourself those mental breaks while you're reading it, so that you don't become overwhelmed.

    Maybe in the moment, it feels like being kind to yourself, just say, forget this. I can't do it. But if you really take the time to read and annotate and absorb, it's going to be easier the second time, and then the easier the third time and easier the fourth time. It's going to get easier every time. And that's why when you get to a certain level, even though there are still-- it still might take some time. It's not going to be as much of a slog because you're going to be trained. You're going to be ready.

    And so in some ways, reading a scholarly article is you, educating yourself on how you learn and absorb. And that's something that college really teaches you too, is how do I work through this?

    So reading scholarly articles is hard for everyone and takes a lot of time, but now you know that depending on what discipline the article is and your purpose for reading it, your process might change and you might not even need to read the full article. You definitely want to start with the abstract, take breaks, and since you're not the intended audience, give yourself plenty of time to read and don't be afraid to Google everything. Ultimately, it's about learning what works best for you.


Thanks to Professors:

Dr. Erin McKenney- Assistant Professor Director-Undergraduate Programs

Chelsea Krieg- Lecturer and Creative Writing Academic Advisor

Dr. Meagan Kittle Autry- Teaching Assistant Professor-Director of Professional Development

Video Creation Credits:

Anne Burke: Editing

Kristy Borda: Editing

Tisha Mentnech: Editing

Tim Mensa: Music Production

Alison Edwards: Scripting, Editing, Interviewing

Darrien D. Bailey: Scripting, Storyboarding, Animation, Audio Editing, Interviewing


This video is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.