Reading Journal Articles

submitted by weekend librarian Marg Baltzer

I have to read all these journal articles for my paper! How will I get through all them? What is the point of all those details?

Reading journal articles is a learned skill. You do not read a journal article like you would a book or a magazine article. Each section has a specific purpose and it is important to know the purpose of each before you embark on this new adventure!

The other thing to keep in mind while you are reading these articles is to view the content of the article as a means of dialogue between experts in the field. The author introduces the reader to what research has already been done in the past (and credits those researchers!); the author then introduces the reader to his/her research topic and explains why and how it was completed. The results of the research are presented and then these results are integrated into the context of previous research. The author then explains why these results are important and presents possible topics for further research. With this in mind, it is easier to understand the purpose and importance of this type of publication. Each article is one person/group’s voice in a bigger conversation.

The following links and resources will illustrate those differences between the different sections of the research article and why each is important.

How to Read a Scholarly Journal Article

Understanding Scholarly Journal Articles

In the Sciences… In the Humanities…
 How to read and take notes on a scholarly article

How to read a scientific paper

How to read and interpret different kinds of research articles

Simple method for evaluating clinical research

The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a
Journal-Style Scientific Paper


How to read a journal articleHow to read a journal

Reading…for History: A Guide for College Students (in the left column there are 2 links for reading primary and secondary sources)

What is a systematic review? What are they good for?

This is a question often posed by our science and social science students, so I like to refer to Cochrane Library for definitions:

“A systematic review is a high-level overview of primary research on a particular research question that tries to identify, select, synthesize and appraise all high quality research evidence relevant to that question in order to answer it” (Cochrane, 2014)

Another definition they give is:

“A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making” (Cochrane, 2014).

Systematic reviews are also a type of journal article, published alongside primary research articles in scholarly journals.


How do you know if a journal article is a systematic review?

Systematic reviews will identify themselves  as such in the abstract, introduction, and/or the methods (sometimes even in the title). For example, you could find language like “the purpose of this systematic review…”  like the example below

Systematic Review Abstract

Systematic reviews will also often include a methods section: the authors will list what databases they searched, what terms or keywords they used, the kinds of articles they included and excluded, etc. I’ve included an example below from the open-access Journal of Neurosciences in Renal Practice:

Systematic Review - Methods

Reviews that are not systematic don’t have these distinguishing features. If you’re not sure what kind of article something is, make sure to ask a librarian or your professor.


When would you want to use a systematic review?

Even though systematic reviews are secondary sources they are often considered more credible than regular literature reviews: this is because the authors have systematically found every article that falls into their research parameters. In a regular literature review, we can’t be sure if the authors have missed important research.

Systematic reviews are a great way to start off your research: if you’re able to find one on your exact topic, you can thank your lucky stars! We recommend students use the reference lists from systematic reviews to help identify primary research on their topics. Rather than digging through databases to get an overview on your topic, systematic reviews provide a starting list of primary research articles that you can then go find. Then you can just fill in the gaps!

That said, it’s important to pay attention to the methods of the review: what dates did they examine? Have more studies been published since the systematic review was written? Did they exclude any studies that you should probably consider? Reading a systematic review carefully will help you with determining what research you need to do next.


When should you not use a systematic review?

Systematic reviews are still secondary sources: the authors are not contributing new information or understanding to the field, but rather summarizing and combining the results of others’ research. Even though the authors take efforts to eliminate bias, there is no guarantee they have analyzed the studies correctly or from your perspective on the topic (they’re still humans, after all). Make sure to read them with a critical eye. If your professor has asked you to use primary research only, make sure to ask before using a systematic review in your reference list.

How do I determine if a source is ‘primary’?

Thanks to our weekend librarian Josh Klar for this helpful post! – HC

In science, a primary source article reports on an empirical research study conducted by the authors of the article. Secondary sources, usually reviews, are often summarizing research that was done by other people.

A few good ways to identify a primary source article include looking for the following in the abstract or in the body of the article:

  • A reference to the “study” that was conducted by the authors:Abstract
  • A reference to the “research method” used to conduct the study (Sometimes this will not be discussed in the abstract and will be found in the article under “Method” or “Methodology”):Methods
    Secondary sources in science – again, usually reviews – sometimes include methods, too, so make sure to read this section carefully. Primary articles will refer to the kind of study that was conducted: clinical trial, randomized controlled trial, observational study, etc.
  • Primary articles reference the “results” discovered through the study, too – See Example 1 above again. This is where the authors list their contribution to the overall understanding of this topic in the literature.


In social sciences, humanities or the arts, sometimes it can be a bit trickier to determine if material is a primary source. In these disciplines, a primary source is any material that was produced by eyewitnesses to or participants in an event, and typically the material was written or created during the time of study or observation. Think of a photograph or a page from a diary. These are records of a moment in time and are examples of primary sources. Other examples could be: Memoirs, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, ethnographies or research data from a study. These primary sources all serve as raw material to interpret social, cultural, or historical events.

And just remember… any source that arrives at conclusions based on research from other studies are NOT primary sources. A few examples would include

  • Literature reviews
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • Many textbooks


How do I find a journal abbreviation?

Thanks to our Saturday librarian Marg Baltzer for this helpful post! – HC

The citation style that I have to use abbreviates the name of the journal. Where can I find the correct abbreviation for the journals that I cite in my paper?

There are four main sources you can use to determine the correct abbreviation. If one source does not list the abbreviation you are looking for, try the next one on the list! (If you are off campus, make sure you login first)

If you try all four sources and still can’t find your abbreviated journal title, don’t make it up! Some journal titles aren’t abbreviated, including some that are just one word titles. Talk with your professor to know how you should proceed!

  1. Ulrich’s Periodical Directory. When you login to Ulrich’s all you need to do is search for the journal name, click on the title and then scroll down to, and click on ‘additional title details’. It may or may not have the abbreviation listed.
  2. Web of Science. In Web of Science, click on the arrow right beside ‘basic search’
    Basic search arrowFrom the drop down list, choose ‘cited reference search’. Under the second search box you will see “view abbreviation list”. From this page, you can navigate to the required journal title
  3. NLM Catalog. On the search page of the National Library of Medicine (PubMed), find and click on ‘Journals in NCBI Databases”. Enter your journal title and the results will give you the correct abbreviation.
    4. Journal Seek. In JournalSeek , simply enter your journal title and if the journal is in their database, the search results will give you the correct abbreviation

My prof suggested I search for articles in a specific journal: what does that mean?

Note: this post is jargon-heavy and aimed at students who have a little bit of research experience. Make sure to check out our other posts on journals and finding articles if you’re not sure what some of the terminology means. HC.

When you get to know a topic or a discipline, the same journal titles will keep popping up. You may notice this if you do a few research assignments on the same topic, or once you reach fourth year and have studied the same discipline for awhile. For experts in the field, like your professors, they’ll know which journal titles are likely to cover different topics within your discipline. This is often why they’ll suggest to you “look in Leadership Quarterly” or “check the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology,” because they know the kinds of titles each journal will publish.

So: knowing how to access articles just from a specific journal title can be an important skill. Luckily the steps aren’t all that different from searching a database, you just need to know where to start. Off campus users: make sure to log in before you start!

  1. Start at the catalogue. There are lots of other ways to start, but this way will always connect you.
  2. Search by Journal Title. So, type in “leadership quarterly” or whatever journal you’re searching. Make sure to click the “Journal Title” radio button on the catalogue before hitting Search.
  3. CaptureLook for the “Click here for online access links.” There may be more than one, depending whether we pay for an online subscription for this journal from multiple places. Choose the link you think is most suitable for your needs. A warning, though: the date ranges next to the links aren’t always accurate!Capture 2
  4. Search for articles! Make sure the option “Limit Search to this Journal” or “Only this Journal” is checked.Capture 3Alternatively, you can browse by date or issue to see what’s been published recently. The best part: you don’t have to go searching for full-text articles!