When reading an academic journal article, begin by identifying the research question and the main argument (thesis) of the article. This is the most important part of reading: understanding the main argument. You should be able to distill the main argument of an article in to two to three sentences that clearly capture the findings and significance of that work. Once you have identified the question and thesis, you can begin to discover how the author makes their case.
- When reading an academic article, you'll typically want to begin by identifying the dependent variable and the independent variable. In case you're not familiar with those terms, let me summarize them for you. An independent variable is a thing that you believe changes (happens) independently, on its own. For instance, an independent variable might be a person's age. A dependent variable is the thing that the researcher believes changes in response to other variables, and which he or she is trying to measure. For example: if the research question is "how much does lobbying matter for policy making in the age of mass emails?" then the independent variable is mass email (as it is used in lobbying), and the dependent variable is legislator responsiveness to lobbying.
- One of the main tools in academic writing is "they say, I say." Identify the author's "I say," and "they say." How is the author setting up their argument in opposition or as an addition to a body of knowledge? What is novel about what you're reading?
- What data are they using to answer their research question? Is the data appropriate to the question? If the author wants to talk about women on city councils, then they need to have data that addresses that level of government.
- How are the variables "operationalized"? What do I mean by that? Essentially, consider how they measure various concepts. In the above example of lobbying during the age of mass emails, you would want to know - how does the author capture "responsiveness" to emails?
- Finally, what conclusions does the author (authors) come to? Did you find their evidence convincing, or were their conclusions a bit of a leap?
- Finally, here is a list of questions you can use to structure your reading of an academic journal article.
In an ideal world, you will go through each of those steps to deconstruct an article and analyze what you're reading. But we all know that you may be reading under time pressures or constraints, and you may not realistically be able to sit down and deconstruct every article you are assigned. What then?
You'll still need to begin by identifying the thesis of the article, but instead of mapping out the argumentation, variables, and methods, you can use heuristics to grasp the basic point of the article. Here is a great resource on how to best use heuristics and keywords to improve comprehension when doing quick reading. A few additional pointers are as follows:
- The most important thing to do is still (likely) to grasp the basic research question and the thesis / findings.
- However, you should bear in mind the type of class you are reading for. If you are reading for a research methods class, by the love of all that is holy, do not skim through the research methods section.