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Peer-reviewed or scholarly articles are necessary for academic research, but they can be daunting if you have never used them before. This guide is designed to help you determine, quickly, whether or not a peer-reviewed article will be useful for your academic research project, and give you ideas on how to use peer-reviewed articles to hone your search strategy and collect more resources for your work.
For our purposes here we've pulled examples from one scientific article on puffer fish poisoning and another article on using food writing to teach literacy (citations below). The sections below may or may not be present in every article; it largely depends on what the discipline requires. Articles published in scientific journals deliver these with the most regularity, whereas articles in the Humanities tend to be a bit looser with their guidelines, which is why we've chosen one of each to be our examples here.
Simply put, an abstract is a summary of the article. It is usually no longer than 200 words and appears directly before the main text of the article. Read the abstract of an article first. Many research article databases include the abstract in the full record that we find via the library search engine, meaning we don't have to download the entire article to see the abstract ahead of time. Reading the abstract first is a great way to see whether or not the article will cover the topic we want in a way that will be helpful to our research project. If we don't see a connection in the abstract, it's not likely that the article will be of much use to us. Move on to an article that may be better.
Many peer-reviewed articles include a list of keywords at the end of the abstract, or somewhere else on the first page of the article. These keywords can give us an idea of what key terms and topics are covered in the article itself, but more importantly, we can pull them to use in our own searches as we look for more resources. This expands our options for search terms insuring they are more relevant to our research topic.
Headings will vary depending on the discipline. It is common for scientific articles to have a very specific systematic set of headings (although it is not a rule, and many good scientific publications do not utilize headings). However, it is less common for articles about literature to have a specific set of headings, or even use them at all. Headings may tell us a lot about an article, so they are definitely worth scanning an article to find. In the more rigidly structured scientific articles, we will see the typical progression of headings and will need to read through specific sections to get an idea of what's going on. However in other disciplines where a certain structure of headings is not so strongly adhered to, we should be able to read through them and get an idea of how the argument of the authors progresses. Whether it's formulaic or based on the structure of the argument itself, headings give us a clear idea of where specific information is located within the article and they're a quick way to get the gist of the article. Let's breakdown some of the common headings we may see in scientific articles...
The introduction is an easy way to determine whether or not an article is a good fit. An introduction establishes what the article is going to do. It does not do the job of summarizing the article, but rather sets the stage for the research question or thesis. Identifying the research question or thesis statement is a great way to discover the article's focus.
Sometimes these sections appear separate and sometimes together. Results will show, typically in very technical language, what data was collected from the research. This section can be long and tedious if the field is unfamiliar. If they are split up, the Results section will most likely be the very data-heavy one. Scan it briefly if that's the case and move on to the Discussion section. Normally there is less technical data in the Discussion section and more bringing the raw numbers together to tell us what it all means. The Discussion section tends to be more relatable and decipherable to a more general audience. Authors want us all to get the main point, of course, and this leads very well into the conclusion.
The Conclusion does what we are all used to since the beginning of our writing lives: sums up the article. There's no shame in peeking ahead at this. If the conclusions the authors draw from their research are not what we need for our own research project, or are very far from what we were hoping to find, it may be best to move on to a resource that will be more useful. Do take into consideration, however, that opposing perspectives can be useful to developing the strength of our own arguments and research. We shouldn't totally discount them because they say the opposite of what we are arguing. We can address these resources head-on and perhaps increase the quality and comprehensiveness of our own work overall.
A methods section will describe how the authors put together their research. We should read the Methods section after we have read the other sections and decided that this article may be worth keeping. A Methods section is more typical in articles in the sciences where the very specific scientific method is utilized. This section is important to read because it will show us where potential gaps or problems in the research lie. We can evaluate whether or not the article is a good one to use by comparing this to other articles we've already found that we believe are good, solid resources. Research with flaws may still be useful for a research project, particularly if we have later research that directly addresses the flaws in the article, or if we are trying to make a case for a new study. Consider the goals of the project. That said, we should be wary of using research with problematic methods to bolster our points. Simply neglecting to cite the problems within the article and cherry-picking quotations that misrepresent the article as a whole is not good academic practice and is a red flag of serious problems with the research.
Other Section Headings
Not all articles will have such predictable section headings. Some articles may not be divided into specific sections at all. The more predictable section headings that we saw above are most common in scientific articles. Humanities disciplines, for instance, may not have any section headings, and if they do they'll most likely be topical, or follow the flow of the article or argument, rather than hold to a specific formula, such as the example to the right.
Whether it is photograph, a chart or graph, or some other visual inserted into text of the article, these can give us quick, visual representations of the information in the article. Sometimes just viewing these visuals is enough to make a decision about whether or not the article is significant to our own point. Don't neglect the captions, as they often provide useful context for understanding the visuals. Visuals have the added bonus of standing out, so they are easy to spot while scanning through the text of an article.
Depending on what citation style is being used, the list of references may have a different name, but this section carries the same idea and weight across all disciplines. These are articles were either directly cited within the article, or (as is the case of a bibliography) informed the overall trajectory of the argument or research and influenced the authors as they were writing. Scanning the references page, particularly in articles that we will be using for our own work, will tell us very quickly what key players in the field the authors of the article have cited or read in their research for this article. This is also a great way to find more resources for our own research. We can look for abstracts or summaries of books, articles, and other resources from the references section in the library catalog and go through this same process to see if they would also be useful for our own research project.
Appendices exist when there is related information the author wants to share with the reader but it is substantial enough (think several pages) that they do not want to break up the text of their article by inserting it there. In order to keep the reader focused on the article and not detract attention from that, the author will add these materials at the end. Appendices also often contain supplemental materials (such as the example below, in which we see that the author has provided the text of the assignment he discusses in the article itself).
Alvarez, S. (2016). Taco Literacies: Ethnography, Foodways, and Emotions through Mexican Food Writing. Composition Forum, 34.
Landsberg, J. H., Hall, S., Johannessen, J. N., White, K. D., Conrad, S. M., Abbott, J. P., & ... Steidinger, K. A. (2006). Saxitoxin
Puffer Fish Poisoning in the United States, with the First Report of Pyrodinium bahamense as the Putative Toxin Source. Environmental Health Perspectives, (10). 1502.