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Nursing Literature Search

How To Read a Journal Article

Journal articles, also called scholarly or academic articles are an essential tool for evidence-based practice. Reading them is a skill that improves with practice. A systematic approach can help you get the most out of the valuable information in scholarly literature. 

Check out our interactive tutorial on how to read a journal article. Click the or buttons to learn more about each section of an article, and tips for reading. A text version is provided also, with our example article available to download. 

You can view or download the example article used in the interactive tutorial here.

Journal articles will generally contain the same elements. 

The first page will contain: 

  • Publishing information 
    • In our example article, this is in the upper righthand corner. Here, we have the journal title [Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts], publication year [2022], volume number [16], issue number [4], page numbers [719-732]. and DOI (digital object identifier), which is the article's unique web address.
    • This information is used to create accurate citations, which are important for others to follow your research breadcrumbs. 
    • Sometimes, an article will only have a volume or issue number. 
  • Article Title 
    • In our example, the title "Universality and Specificity of the Kindchenschema: A Cross-cultural Study on Cute Rectangles" operates as both one-sentence article topic summary. This title, like many journal articles, uses technical terms rather than plain language. It's about what makes a rectangle cute! 
  • Authors and Author Credentials 
    • Articles that have multiple authors (most common) list authors in order from who contributed the most to the least. Some articles can have more than ten authors depending on the subject! 
    • In our example, author names have their credentials listed below. You might see credentials in the same line as their names. These credentials show us the authority they have on the subject. You can also use lateral searching to find these authors at these institutions for more information about their research. 
  • Abstract
    • ​​​​​​​A (usually) one-paragraph summary of the article's main topic, research question, methods, results, and conclusions. 
    • This is the first place you should look when determining if an article is an appropriate source for your topic. 
    • Somewhere around the abstract you might see author-supplied keywords which are a great tool for expanding or narrowing your search. 

The beginning of the article text might contain: 

  • Introduction 
    • ​​​​​​​Authors generally set the stage for their own research study within the introduction. The introduction might include the next three elements in this list, or they will appear in the article separately.
    • Look here for the research question(s) being explored within the current study. It's common for there to be more than one, with its own discussion. 
    • Some more information within the introduction could be a brief historical overview, the significance of the research area, and any relevant context. 
  • Literature Review
    • The literature review is a summary of existing research related to the topic. It highlights gaps in knowledge that the author's research hopes to address. It helps establish the rationale for the research and demonstrates the author's understanding of the existing body of research. 
    • Many of your projects will involve literature synthesis and summary, so reading literature reviews and studying how author's incorporate multiple resources and ideas is a great way to develop your own writing skill in this area. 
    • ​​​​​​​This element may or may not be included within the introduction.  
  • Theoretical Framework
    • ​​​​​​​Some articles will include a theoretical or conceptual framework for their study. This outlines what theories within the field guided the research and helps situate the study within existing theoretical perspectives. 
    • This element may or may not be included within the introduction. 
    • Usually the theoretical framework plays a more major role within the discussion of the study's results. 
  • Author Background 
    • ​​​​​​​Authors might have very specific relationships to the topic they are researching, and they might devote an entire section to discussing that relationship. 
    • This element may or may not be included within the introduction. 

The body of the article will be about the current study. It might contain: 

  • Methods
    • ​​​​​​​Information about the study, such as study design, sample size, recruitment techniques, and analysis specifics. 
    • Looking at the methods through a critical lens will help you determine generalizability of the study and its relevance to your own paper. 
    • In our example, there are actually multiple studies combined into one. These authors delivered a pretest with its own methodology, results, and discussion. The results contributed to the formation of their main study. You might find a similar article, depending on your topic; it's important to make sure you're talking about the right study!
  • Results
    • ​​​​​​​This section will give you the key findings and statistical data. Sometimes, charts, graphs, and other visuals will appear here, interspersed with the text. 
  • Discussion
    • ​​​​​​​While the results section outlines everything pertinent that the study found, the discussion section is where the authors will interpret those results, their implications, and potential for future research. 
    • Sometimes, like in our example article, the conclusion is within the discussion.
  • Limitations
    • It is common for the introduction to mention the limitations of the study, though this is not meant to discredit or devalue the research. Rather, this section clarifies the boundaries of the research and any constraints that might impact generalizability of the findings. Limitations can be used in future research to address weaknesses and build on the contributions of the current study. 
    • The author might address the study's limitations within the methods, discussion, or conclusion rather than its own section.
  • Conclusion 
    • ​​​​​​​This is a concise summary of the main points and the article's overall contribution to the body of research on the topic. 
    • This can be a standalone section, or, like in our example article, combined into the discussion. 

Some articles, depending on subject, will also include visuals such as charts, graphs, or images. These might be interspersed within the body of the article, or at the end in an appendix. 

Finally, every reputable, scholarly article will include references. The appearance of references depends largely on the citation format used within the article. This includes footnotes and endnotes, as well as a reference or works cited page.

The parts of an article may or may not be clearly labeled. Some sections might be combined into one section, while other articles delineate all. Don't get hung up on a missing heading for a specific section, and instead use this outline as a general guideline for the structure of a journal article