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Geology Writing Guide

How to Read a Journal Article

When you are just beginning to read the research literature in your discipline, understanding a scientific article can be a challenge.  The following is a brief guide about how get started reading this literature.  

Keep the following concepts in mind before you start:

  • There will likely be concepts and vocabulary that are not familiar to you.  Use your textbook, dictionaries, glossaries, encyclopedias (preferably about Geology - Wikipedia is okay sometimes), and other reliable sources on the web to do background reading that will help you become more familiar with what you don’t understand.  See this process as an opportunity to learn something new.
  • It will be important to read an article multiple times.  Initial readings can be more like skimming the article, but subsequent readings should be slower, where you pay more attention to detail.
  • Don’t get bogged down in the details.  It’s okay to put the paper down and come back to it later if you’re feeling overwhelmed or need to do some background reading to gain clarity about particular aspects.
  • Leave lots of time to find, process and digest this literature.  Start your literature search early!

How to read the article:  

There is no one correct way to read a scientific article. These are only recommendations and there are alternative approaches; in the end, you will develop a style that works best for you.  

  • Start by reading the Title

Identify the topic, time frame and location of the study.

  • Then read the Abstract.  

The abstract gives you a brief summary of the article’s content and is meant to give a snapshot of the author’s purpose, goals, methods, results, and interpretations.

  • Skim/read the Introduction.  

This is where the authors identify their question or hypothesis and put it in the context of what has been done before.  At the end of the Introduction, authors will state the purpose of the project and scope of the work. 

As you read through this section, as well as others, you will find references to other literature the authors have consulted in preparation for their work.  These can be good sources of additional information.  Note which ones you will want to look up later.

The abstract and introduction will help you form your thesis.

  • Read the Conclusions

The Conclusions summarize the context and results of the paper and hightlight the key points of the discussion

  • Look at the Figures in order

Answer these questions before moving forward in the paper.  Where is the study area? What kind of data are being collected?  How are these data being presented? How are these data being synthesized and integrated with prior work? 

  • Methods and Results  

These can be challenging to understand and may make more sense after first reading the Discussion and Conclusion.  The Discussion section is where the authors interpret the results including how these results relate to the work done by others. Limitations to the interpretation may be acknowledged here. In the Conclusion, the authors will return to their original hypothesis/es from the Introduction and acknowledge whether the data successfully answered or supported the question or hypothesis.

If you haven’t done so already, go back to spend time with the Methods (i.e. how the research was done) and the results sections to see how they support what was said in the Discussion and Conclusion.  Pay close attention to tables, charts, figures and maps. Do not just skip over them or gloss over them. When the paper refers to a figure, be sure you are looking at that figure and understand the point the author is making.

  • Reread the article several times, the last time from beginning to end. 

Think Critically about the information presented. Did the introduction adequately, correctly, logically and clearly provide the context for a reader to understand the problem to be addressed? Are the methods appropriate to test the hypothesis? Are the data internally consistent? Do the interpretations explain all of the data? Are the conclusions limited to what the data say or do the authors speculate?


Other guides to reading the scientific literature:

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