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Professional Writing in Psychology (21:830:360:01): Reading research articles

A detailed introduction to using PsycINFO for literature reviews

Reading research articles critically

Reading Journal Articles Critically

Skimming first

To begin reading an article that reports on a research study, try skimming it after you read the abstract and conclusions carefully.  You will acquire a broad overview of the researcher’s work that will help your understanding. 

  • Note the authors and their credentials.  What is their expertise on the subject under study?
  • Determine the quality of the journal.  What are the other articles in the issue like?  Is the journal peer reviewed?  You can learn more by going to the publisher’s website for the journal.  There will be a statement about the aims for the journal and instructions for authors which should include information about peer review.
  • What is the main argument or hypothesis?  This will be in the last few sentences of the Introduction.
  • Briefly review the tables and figures presented by the authors to get an idea of the data presented in the article.  Read the title legends to provide a context for the data.  Are there important patterns in the data presented in the tables and figures? 
  • Scan the Discussion.  What support is offered for the hypothesis?  Look for transitional phrases such as “First,” “Second,” or “Finally.”  How important are these points to the overall argument? 
  • Does the Discussion or Results section include suggestions for further investigations?
  • Look at the references.  Are they current?  Do they follow APA format?  Do you recognize any of the articles or any of the authors’ names from your previous readings?

Reading analytically

Your next reading should be analytical.  It might be helpful to have specific questions to answer or criteria to meet.  A list of questions follows.  Please be sure to summarize the content or add your own questions to the author in margin notes or a separate record.  Your insights or questions for related research may be important.

    Title

   Read the title carefully: more information is contained in the title than you think. 

  • What are the major ideas addressed in the article?
  • Who were the participants?  What was their affiliation?  Were they members of a particular group (adolescents, women or college students)?

    Abstract

   The purpose of the abstract is to summarize the article.  It should provide you with the theoretical motivation for    the paper, the major results and a brief general discussion. 

  • What variables were examined?
  • What were the findings?
  • Does the study show a cause-and-effect relationship between variables or does it show that a relationship exists?
  • Where was the work conducted (e.g., laboratory or field)?  If it was conducted in the field, what was the geographical location?
  • Why is this study interesting or a worthwhile topic/phenomenon to research?  Why would this article interest researchers in the field?  What is the study’s significance?

    Introduction

   The introduction will give you the rationale for the study (an explanation of what the study investigates and why    the author considers it important). A review of previous research or theory is included to provide the context for    the study.  The author then presents the research question(s) and makes assumptions on what will be uncovered    as a result of the study.  As you read the introduction and literature review, ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of the article?  Is it reporting an empirical study, a new theory, or is it reviewing previously published theory and research?
  • What is the topic of the article?  What specifically is the article addressing?  Is it answering a specific question, trying to explain certain observations, presenting a model of some process, exploring the relationship between two or more variables or something else? 

       Literature Review

  •    Is the literature review organized logically?  Is there a critique of each study?
  •    Do the articles the author selected for the review section reflect what is known about the phenomenon?
       Are there gaps in the current knowledge of the phenomenon or the research problem?

    Introduction, continued

  • Is the hypothesis stated clearly?  Is it sufficiently specific to be testable?
  • Is the hypothesis supported by existing research, observations or examples?
  • Are relationships between the variables included within the hypothesis?  Are the independent and dependent variables defined?  Are there any intervening or extraneous variables?

    Method

   There is rarely a single way of testing a prediction or hypothesis.  The researcher considered a number of possible    research designs or procedures or sample groups.  You must decide whether the choices made by the researcher    will allow valid claims to be made about the prediction or hypothesis.  The researcher may also draw comparisons    earlier studies and you must determine whether those comparisons or generalizations are supported.

  • How was the research conducted?  What techniques were used?
  • Were the methods selected by the researcher valid tests of the hypothesis?
  • Were participants in the study described as specifically as possible
  • Is the sample size adequate for generalizing from the results?
  • Does the sample represent the identified population?
  • Was the method of selecting the sample appropriate?
  • Are the criteria for selection included?
  • Are there any sampling biases?
  • Is the procedure detailed enough for a reader to replicate the method?
  • How do the methods compare with those used by other researchers looking at the same problem?

   Results

   This section provides numerical evidence to support or refute the hypothesis.  Ask yourself:

  • Are results reported in an unbiased manner?  This could strongly influence interpretation.
  • What was the reasoning for choosing a particular statistical test to analyze the data?
  • Is the analysis appropriate for the level of measure for the variable?
  • Is the results section organized clearly and logically?
  • Are the tables and figures clear and understandable?
  • Are the tables and figures explained in the text?
  • What differences did the authors find that support or refute the study’s hypotheses?

    Discussion

   In the Discussion, the author should summarize the main findings of the study.  When reading the Discussion    section you should ask yourself:

  • How do the authors interpret the findings? Is something new uncovered?  Are there new questions raised?  Do the authors discuss implications of their findings for theory or for practice? 
  • Is the researcher justified in making any theoretical claims that are made on the basis of the study’s findings?  Were the hypotheses supported or rejected?
  • Have the appropriate interpretations of the results been made?
  • Are there ways of interpreting the results that haven’t been considered?
  • Has the researcher presented an unbiased evaluation of the study/methods employed?
  • Are suggestions made about future research on this topic/phenomenon based on the study’s findings?  The author might include these comments in the Conclusion.

    Conclusion

   The Conclusion may be in a separate section at the end of the article or incorporated as part of the Discussion    section.  The Conclusion should summarize the important findings of the study and point out their significance to    the general research area. 

 

Read comparatively:

Read other related studies to compare methods, results, and discussion.  This will give you a better idea of the studies’ results overall and it will make identification of knowledge easier.

 

 

References

 Beck, C. T. (1990). The research critique: General criteria for evaluating a research report. JOGNN, 19, 18-22.

Critically reading journal articles. Conservation Biology: Environmental Studies 319. Retrieved from http://www.colby.edu/biology/bi319/GuideReadJour.doc

 Dunn, D. S. (2004). A short guide to writing about psychology. New York: Pearson Longman.