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Journal Club Guide

A guide about the how-to's of participating in journal clubs.

How to Read a Journal Article

How to Read a Journal Article

Journal articles are not read like traditional books or magazines. Great attention to detail and critical thinking skills are necessary to successfully read a journal article. They must be read carefully and diligently, like a textbook. You must also question and analyze them, without accepting what is written as blind fact.

Believe it or not, it is best to read the sections of a journal article out of order. This helps to give a better sense of the experiment and a better sense on how each section supports the overall argument. The sections should be read in this order:

  1. Abstract
  2. Conclusion
  3. Discussion
  4. Introduction
  5. Methods
  6. Results
  7. Re-read the Discussion
Important Reading Tips:
  • Mark up the article! Use highlighters and pens while reading journal articles. Underline or mark important analyses, information, conclusions, and unique data points. This helps with memory, attention, and for finding important pieces of information later on.
  • Write little outlines, small summaries, and notes with your thoughts in the margins of the article. Re-writing and summarizing in your own words and writing your thoughts as you read helps with remembering, understanding, and reference. Journal article clubs will ask for your thoughts, opinions, and general understanding of each section of the article. Use your notes as reference.

Explanation to the Reading Order

Abstract: Always start by reading the abstract. The abstract is a quick summary of all the important aspects of the experiment. It helps give a quick, generalized sense of the experiment and its conclusions.

Conclusion: The next section to read is the conclusion. The conclusion is an expanded summary of the experiment. Reading it helps expand upon the abstract.

Discussion: Reading the discussion can be difficult. The goal of reading the discussion the first time is to become familiar with how the authors arrived at their analyses. Try to understand as much as possible. The results analyzed in the discussion will be hard to understand, but the ultimate goal is to become aware and familiar with their logic. Compare all the information that you will read in the next sections to see of their analyses are justified from the discussion section.

Introduction: Jump back to the beginning of the article to read the introduction. The introduction provides key background information and justification for the experiment. The goal is to understand why the existence of the experiment is important and the purpose of the research question. Using your knowledge of the previous sections, determine if the authors were successful in answering their original research question.

Methods: Read this section with the goal of determining if their methodology for answering their research question is reasonable. Also, try to determine if the methodology supports their analyses in the discussion section. Understand the importance and goal of each individual procedure. Look for any conflicts of interest or poor methodology, such as not obtaining IRB approval (if applicable). You will be asked for your understanding on these points in a journal club discussion. It will definitely help your comprehension of the results.

Results: The results section is, in my opinion, the hardest section of journal articles. It requires great understanding of the methodology, the overall goal of the experiment, and strong critical thinking skills. Read the results section slowly, and don't become discouraged by the daunting figures. Look for major differences in the data points, and try to draw your own analyses and conclusions from the results. Form your own opinions and thoughts on how well the authors transformed their data into results (remember: raw data is not results. Scientific procedure requires raw data to be transformed in some way. This is most commonly achieved by performing statistical analyses on the relationships between different variables). Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Are the statistical analyses sound?
  • Did the authors convey the results in the best way?
    • Do the charts and figures make sense for the statistical analyses? Do the figures convey information well? Are they properly labeled?
  • Do the results fit the purpose the experiment and the research question?

Use your critical thinking skills to ask yourself these questions.

Re-Read the Discussion: Use your full knowledge of the article and the results to re-read the authors' analyses, claims, and conclusions. Do the results support their conclusions? Do their conclusions support their overall research question? You can re-read the conclusion section and the abstract for a final closing. It's also time to form your final thoughts on the journal article. Does the overall structure of the article make sense? Was it written well? Was there a conflict of interest by the authors or funding source? Is everything properly cited and referenced?