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Biology Literature Searching: Reading an Academic Article

How to search for journal literature efficiently and effectively.

Efficiently reading an academic article

Many of you may not have been asked to read many academic articles yet. Often I get students freaking out about having to read through five or ten articles in a short period of time. But not to fear! There are ways to read through your articles more efficiently so that you are able to quickly sort your research into relevant and irrelevant sources. Here's some tips for you.

  • When you are doing your first scan of the literature (a database search) focus on the title, abstract, and keywords. If your topic is not present in those, it may be time to move on to the next article.
  • Collect your articles as you go - it's frustrating to have to go back and re-create your searches.
  • Select more articles than you think you need to begin with. Remember, you won't be reading through them all, so having fifteen articles instead of eight doesn't have to be time consuming.
  • Once you have a selection of articles, re-read the title and abstract. Then read the introduction. Move on to the discussion or conclusion If those still fit your research question, move on to the literature review and methodology.
  • Take notes as you read, highlight or identify key quotes or statistics that you can come back to.

Reading articles can be time-consuming! By creating efficient searches and using effective filtering and skimming, you can save yourself time and end up with more relevant articles.


For more information I recommend taking a look at "Reading for Grad School" by Miriam Sweeny.

Anatomy of a Scholarly Journal Article

Organization of a Traditional Academic Paper

Most traditional academic papers follow the same basic format:

  1. Abstract
    • A brief summary of the contents of the article. Usually contains a description of the research question; an outline of the study' and a summary of the conclusions or findings.
    • Very helpful to read this first to determine whether or not the article meets your needs.
  2. Introduction
    • Describes the problem or topic that the paper is addressing. Will contain the thesis or goal of their research. May also discuss the relevance or importance of the question.
    • The introduction sometimes contains a literature review (an overview of the related research and findings) as well.
  3. Background, History, Review-of-Literature or Methodology
    • Lit review: An overview of related research and findings. Can set the context for the research question or identify gaps in the literature that the paper is trying to address.
    • Methodology: This section will show how the specific procedures or techniques used to identify, select, process, and analyze the research data.
  4. Results
    • If the paper is a primary research paper, results will be presented.
  5. Argument, Critique, or Discussion
    • Authors will discuss the significance of their findings and set them in context of the broader literature. 
  6. Conclusion
    • The authors will summarize the results of their research and perhaps discuss the next steps.
    • This is another helpful section, after the Abstract, to read through in order to determine if the paper fits your research needs.
  7. Works Cited or Reference
    • A list of all the works the authors used in their research.
    • You can use this list to find additional scholarly articles or books on your topic.

Remember that not all papers require each of these sections.



Information used with permission from NCSU Libraries: Anatomy of a Scholarly Article

For more information see "Organization of a Traditional Academic Paper", by Will Wilkinson.

How to Read a Scientific Paper