How To Read A Peer Review Article

The peer reviewed journal article. The journal article. The scholarly paper. The scientific paper. Stomach-cramp-causing-probably-10-pages-too-long-but-mandatory-for-class-discussion article. Call it what you might, if you ever want something to make you question your decision to pursue post-secondary education as well as your sanity, all you have to do is read one. 

Back up. What even is a peer reviewed journal article? A peer reviewed journal article is a communication of research written by an expert in a specific field. It is revised and edited by other experts in that field. It is then put out into the world by a publication run by experts in that field that distributes research relevant to that field. The many steps and multiple experts involved here make these articles more likely to address reasonable conclusions that are scientifically valid. 

Journal articles are the foundation of scientific communication, and how to read one effectively is all too often overlooked. Here are some things you should know: 

  1. You’re not stupid. Sometimes scientists are bad writers. If an article is indecipherable, it might not be the result of your reading comprehension – some articles are written poorly. 

  2. Ask yourself what you need to get out of the article. Are you only looking for general conclusions or specific pieces of evidence? Do you need background information for a report? Evidence for a research paper? A better understanding of the topic? Why are you reading this article? Knowing what you’re looking for is the first step to finding it. Now, where to look…

  3. Understand what information is covered in each section of the article. Knowing what should be there will help you pick out key points in their entirety. For example, if you make a note about methodology from the abstract, you might not fully grasp the concept. If you know the structure of each section, you’ll understand where to look if you missed something; if you don’t understand where an interpretation in the discussion came from, you’ll know to look back at the results to understand the data.

  4. Don’t overlook the references section. There is a 100% chance that an article that has relevant content has relevant sources. Use this section as a gateway to even more information related to the topic at hand. 

  5. You don’t have to read the article in the order its laid out. Most of the pros don’t. By understanding why you’re reading the article, and what is in each section, you can create an effective plan of attack. 

Many people read in the following order: title; abstract; introduction, conclusion, discussion, materials and methods. Some say it follows better, some change this sequence up. This order makes sense to some because it puts information in order from the broadest to the most specific. Others prefer to narrow information down by reading the whole article one time to understand the bigger pictures, and a second time for details. You might have to experiment with the order to find what works best for you. 

But you should probably read the title first. Does it contain keywords or reference to the topic at hand? If no, move on. If yes, start with the abstract to further determine if the research is relevant; even though the title might be, the abstract provides more detail that might say otherwise. The abstract should give you an idea of what the introduction and conclusion are going to say. It should outline the fundamentals of what, why, how, as well as results and their inferences. Using this information should help you decide if the rest of the study if going to be relevant and if you should move ahead in reading the article (or give you reason to dread the fact that you have to rest the rest). 

The introduction should include a rationale for the study including background of the topic and previous research as well as aims, objectives and possibly a hypothesis. Making a mental or actual note of these things will help you check back to see if the authors ambitions were achieved by the end of the article. 

Materials and methods explain how research was conducted. This section should explain how the problem was studied – what procedures were used, what data was recorded and how – in enough detail that the study could be repeated by the person reading. This is an important section to read in order to consider if the means by which the results were achieved were appropriate. 

The results should explain what was found through reference to data. This section shouldn’t interpret the data or explain anything beyond the raw facts.  

The discussion is where research questions are answered, meaning of analysis and interpretations of the data are explained. Strengths and limitations of the study are outlined. The discussion should include how the results fit into context with other research in the subject area and the directions of future research. Keep in mind that discussions are interpretations, not necessarily facts. 

The conclusion should wrap up the findings. It should enable you to assess if the author reached the goals set out in the introduction. Consider if the discussion and conclusion included interpretations that were clearly based on data and analysis. Were the interpretations reasonable? Are there unanswered questions?  

If you still have unanswered questions, you may need to reread the article a second time. The second go around will make more sense if read in order because you’ll already have an idea (even if it’s a very vague idea) of what’s going on. The second read through will help you understand if it’s you that’s missing or misunderstanding something or if the article actually leaves questions unanswered. 

Peer reviewed journal articles can be seriously confusing, don’t hesitate to ask your professor for clarification on subject matter. Also, don’t hesitate to ask your professor how they read the articles, the most effective method might vary by discipline. Also, they’ve probably read hundreds if not thousands, they will likely have suggestions on how to read more effectively.