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How to read a Journal Article

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How to read PhD journal articles

As a PhD student (and anyone involved in research) you’ll be reading a lot of journal articles; you’ll come across of hundreds of papers, some of which will be very relevant to your research and others that won’t be. So how do you approach the art of paper reading to ensure you’re efficient and also that you get the most from them? Well, there are many ways! Some academics prefer to go from start to finish, taking in each word, whilst others have a strategy of reading specific sections first. We prefer the latter – here are a few tips from us to try out:

We suggest using a three-pass strategy where you take in more detail on each pass and decide at each stage if there’s enough there for you to spend more time on.

1. Pass One

Use your first view of the paper to get a quick feel of what the papers about. This is a max 10-minute task after which you decide if you need to spend any more time on this paper. We suggest:

1. Read the title, abstract and the aims/objectives, usually found at the end of the introduction

2. Read through the headings used throughout the paper (but not the content under them at this stage)

3. Read the conclusions

After this first glance over the paper, you should (1) have an idea of what type of paper this is (e.g. experimental study, the development of a new method etc.), (2) the main things that the authors did and (3) what the take-home messages were. You should also be able to tell at this stage how well the paper is written.
From the information gleaned from the first pass, it’s up to you now if there’s enough interest from you to give it a second more detailed read or if this paper doesn’t interest you or it’s too difficult to understand.

2. Pass Two

If you decide to spend more time on the paper, this second pass is the time to really take in the paper’s content. Go through the methodology in detail – does it make sense? Is this how you would do things? What results are presented? Graphs, figures, tables? Do they make sense? Have the appropriate statistical analysis methods been applied? You should be able to summarise and explain what this paper’s about to someone else after this pass.

3. Pass Three

This final pass is an opportunity to think about how the paper fits in the context of your research. Have the authors presented new data or knowledge that could impact or change the direction of your work? Have they identified or presented new gaps in the knowledge that you could address in your research?
Equally important here is to make sure you’re clear on the limitations of the study and what assumptions have been made by the authors. Thinking about the methodology, would you be able to recreate the results? Would you be happy making the same assumptions or would you do things differently?

As the last point – think about these same steps when you’re writing your own papers!

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