There is a general understanding that it is best to approach original research articles in a non-linear fashion, reading sections strategically to gradually build a depth of comprehension. The best way to start is to consider why you are reading the paper and what you want to learn. Think about what information you will find in each section of the article, and prioritize your reading in terms of what you need to know most to build understanding.
Reading strategies may vary person-to-person, depending on what one's purpose is in reading & experience in the subject area.
Recommended Reading Strategy:
- Title & Abstract: Do a preliminary review of Title and Abstract for relevance. This will help you decide if you want to read the full article.
- Skim Full Paper: Conduct a quick skim of the full paper for structure, data (figures & tables), results, and major findings. Take note of any subheadings and general organization.
- Discussion (& Conclusion, if available): The Discussion section provides a summary of the research findings, presents the authors' interpretations of their results, relates results back to the original research question(s), includes overall conclusions, and may provide suggestions for follow-up research. Reading the Discussion section early on in your reading process gives you a quick overview of what the study found, how it relates to the research questions, and the findings' broader significance. It can make reading the other sections easier because you have a good understanding of the core aspects of the study with a relatively small time investment. While reading, think about any new questions that the authors propose as a result of this research as well as what they propose as next steps for further research.
- Introduction: Read the Introduction to gain an understanding of why the authors conducted the study, the research questions they explored, the context for the research question/topic area, and the predictions (hypothesis) to be tested.
- Figures: Try to interpret data in figures and tables prior to reading textual captions and results
- Results: Read the Results section to understand the data produced by the study. Does the data support the authors' conclusions? Take the time to draw your own conclusions about what the results mean in the context of the research question, and compare your conclusion with the authors'.
- Methods: Read or skim the Methods section to clarify how the authors obtained their results. This section explains the specific experiments and statistical methods used. It will be valuable to those interested in conducting similar experiments or reproducing this paper's results. This section is likely to be the most difficult for someone unfamiliar with the subject due to the specialized technical nature of these details, but the information is not necessarily as critical to understanding the main points of the paper.
- References: Skim through the References to understand the other research consulted and to get ideas of additional papers you may want to read for your research. Reading these papers may give you a deeper understanding of the subject and its context.
- Reread: Repeat the above steps until you form a good understanding of the paper.
Alternate Reading Strategy for Beginning Researchers:
Follow to steps mentioned above, but switch the order of the Discussion/Conclusion and Introduction
- Title & Abstract
- Skim Full Paper
- Introduction: Read the Introduction first to identify the authors' big questions, the purpose of & motivations for the study, and the main hypothesis before delving further into study details and outcomes. Read to understand why the authors conducted the study and what they expected to find. You can challenge yourself to make your own predictions about what the study results will be before reading through the details.