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Navigating the Research Process

Popular versus Scholarly

You might be wondering if you even know what a scholarly article looks like. How are you supposed to know if you've never seen one? To figure out what a scholarly article is, it is good to start by comparing it to something with which you are already familiar: popular articles. You might not read actual glossy magazines, but think of Teen VOGUE, Men's Health, Time or the Economist, any of the titles pictured above. Popular and scholarly resources have certain characteristics that help you tell the difference between them. See the table below. 

Popular Scholarly
shorter longer, at least 7 pages, multiple columns on each page
written for a general audience, even when included in discipline specific magazine (ex. Psychology Today) are written by experts in their field, for other experts; Peer-reviewed
written by the employees of the periodical who may or may not have experience or credentials on the topic authors have credentials to be considered experts: PhD, MD, MA/MS
language is not technical and does not have a lot of jargon; easier to read and understand language can be very technical and varies by subject. This can make these articles difficult to understand for people new to the field (students)
little to no actual citations and no bibliography/works cited list full of citations and include a long list of references
contain advertisements and/or pictures visual representation of data (charts, graphs, tables); no advertisements
come out more frequently: daily, weekly or monthly come out less frequently: quarterly (4xs/year), twice, or once a year


What is an academic journal?

Published, scholarly information comes in a variety of packages, but the most dominant form overall is the research article, which is published in an academic journal. 

An academic journal is a serialized publication, like a magazine or newspaper, though they are often published with less frequency like only once a year! Typically academic journals are published annually, quarterly, bimonthly, or monthly. They are published by places like university presses, academic societies, or commercial publishers. Most have a specific disciplinary focus, such as modern history, astrophysics, or French literature, and the primary audience for these publications will be students and researchers in those disciplinary areas.

Let's look at an example of a scholarly journal!

American Philosophical Quarterly, Cover*Image from:

This is the journal American Philosophical Quarterly (APQ). It's an academic journal published four times per year.

From the website:

\*Image from:

As you can see from the text above, it's published by a university press (University of Illinois) and it's published on behalf of another group, North American Philosophical Publications. Having publishers publishing materials on behalf of another group, such as a learned society, is a common in academic journal publishing.

Anatomy of a Scholarly Article

Scholarly articles do not all look exactly the same but they have similar characteristics. By learning about these characteristics, you will know how to identify something scholarly. 

Scholarly articles that present new research, like in the social sciences and sciences, will have very similar structures. There is a different structure for scholarly articles in the arts and humanities.

Social and Physical Sciences

Research articles include original studies that add to the current scholarship on a given topic. Disciplines within the Social Sciences (ex. sociology, psychology) and Physical Sciences (ex. biology, chemistry) present their findings in research articles. 

The table below describes the components of Scholarly articles in the Social Sciences and Physical Sciences. The majority of research articles in these disciplines will have the sections listed below, but there will be some that do not have all of them. 


Brief summary of the article, including methodology and results.
Introduction Background information about the topic of research, with reasoning for why the study is being done.


How the study was done. The details of the research, including set-up and how data was collected.
Results/Findings Presentation of the data from the study. This section often includes charts, tables and graphs as visual representations of the data.
Discussion Analysis of the data, and how the study relates to existing knowledge of the topic. The authors evaluate whether the results of their study actually answered their research question.
Conclusion The authors wrap up the article by discussing how their study adds to the existing knowledge on the topic and outline potential research for further studies.
References List of resources (articles, books, journals, etc) that authors consulted when developing their research.

Arts and Humanities

Within the Arts and Humanities, scholarly articles are set up differently than in the Sciences. Articles will read more like essays, rather than scientific experiments. As a result, there is no standard format or sections to look for as in the table above. Although an article written in an essay style may seem more approachable to read, the rule still applies that the authors are writing for other experts in their fields, so they might still be very difficult to read because of terminology and jargon from the discipline.

In the Humanities, scholars are not conducting research experiments on participants but rather are making logical arguments based on the evidence they have, which often comes from texts. In literature, for example, a scholar will be studying a particular novel of an author. In history, a scholar will look at the primary source documents from the time period she is studying.

The following sections are generally included in humanities scholarly articles, although not always and might not be clearly marked. In fact, each article you read on a topic will have different section headings, if any, decided upon by the authors and editors.

Abstract This brief summary is sometimes included, sometimes not. 
Introduction Usually pretty long and gives a lot of background information for topic being studied. Thesis "statement" will be found within introduction, although it is not limited to one sentence. Literature Review might also be included here.
Discussion/Conclusion The discussion likely runs through the entire article and does not have a separate section. The conclusion might not be as neatly wrapped up in a humanities articles as in the sciences. Things might be a little unresolved. 
Works Cited List of resources used by the author(s).

Quick Tips for Reading

Let's talk about how to read. 

We're not trying to insult your intelligence here. We know you know how to read.

But did you know that there are different ways of reading depending on what you are trying to get out of the text? And that these different ways come in handy depending on how much time you have/are willing to spend on something?

Adjust your Reading Strategy and Speed

We won't make any assumptions that everyone loves to read. But think about your favorite book or comic book. You probably get lost in your favorite story, reading every word to stay in that world as long as possible, losing track of time as you sit comfortably in your favorite chair. 

Unfortunately, academic or scholarly reading might not give you the same experience. Rarely do you get the warm and fuzzy feeling when curling up with a scholarly article (but you never know, maybe). 

Here are some things to think about when reading for class or research:

Give yourself time to read something a couple of times. But you don't have to read every single word each time.
Understand when to read for the gist, for the main ideas, and for the details. Your first read through should be to skim and get the gist of the reading. The next one can focus on the main ideas and details.
Take notes. If you print out readings, write in the margins to summarize ideas. 
Think about "what it says" and "what it does" Each paragraph will have different ideas and a different purpose. A "what it says" statement is a summary of the paragraph you are reading, while "what it does" describes the paragraph's purpose or function within the writing. 
Play the "believing and doubting" game. So you want to be open to the ideas you read in scholarly writing but also skeptical of them. All texts are trying to change your view by presenting new ideas and evidence. Look for weaknesses in the argument and raise objections even when seeing it from the author's perspective.


Reading scholarly articles can be a difficult task. Scholars have done their research and written up their results for many reasons, but not for many audiences. Although you as a student need to use the articles in your assignment, they were not written specifically for you. (No offense).

The fact is, these scholars are experts in their field writing for other experts. They are using specialized language that can be difficult for someone new to understand. So, you can sit down with an article and start reading, but you may become discouraged pretty quickly.

The tips below are to help you read scholarly articles STRATEGICALLY. These tips can help you approach a scholarly text for easier reading and better understanding. 

For the Sciences:

  • Titles can only tell you so much about the content of the article. The Abstract acts as a preview for the entire article, including the methods and results. By reading the Abstract first, you can get a better idea of what the article is actually about, if it relates to what you are researching, and whether it is worth your time to read the rest of it.

For the Humanities:

  • Articles in the Arts and Humanities do not always include an Abstract, and if they do, it might just be the first paragraph of the introduction. If not included, move onto the Introduction. Make sure to skim through the section headings, if they are there. This will give you an idea of the organization of the article as well as a general idea of themes.

Applies for both sciences and humanities:

  • These two sections give you the background information you need for the topic of the article as well as what happened in the study. The introduction also includes info about previous studies/papers that relate to the current one, which gives you, the reader, a context. By reading the conclusion you see whether the study answered the original research question and what the authors see as the next steps in the scholarship.

Literature review: An overview of previous scholarship on the present topic. Gives both author and reader a context for where the article falls in the literature. Likely to be a separate section within the introduction or right after it.

For the sciences:

  • Closely look at the visual representations of the data. See what conclusions you come to and make note of them. When you read through the entire article, compare your conclusions to what the authors saw in their results and data.

For the humanities:

  • Usually, there is no numeric data that the authors present in their results. However, there might be other visual representations of what the scholars are studying. For example, reproductions of art pieces, or excerpts from primary sources or literary pieces.These are worth looking at to see the materials being studied.

Okay, now that you have pre-read some of the article and are sure it relates to your research topic, read the whole thing. It still might not be easy, but it will not be as hard as if you were reading it with no context.

Some more tips about reading:

  • Take notes
  • Summarize sections or paragraphs
  • Keep a subject dictionary, your textbook glossary or the Internet/Wikipedia close by. If you come across any unfamiliar terms, you can quickly look them up.
  • Keep track of the citation information of the articles you do read and want to use in your paper or assignment. This will make life a lot easier at the end of the project.