A Guide to Tackling a Research Journal

Whether you’re jumping onto the wagon of a research project or are pursuing a research assignment in a course, professors will often assign readings of journal articles as a way to familiarize students with ongoing research in the field. However, for newcomers to a topic, tackling the understanding of a literature review can often be difficult with the influx of new vocabulary and complex, dense information on the topic all at once. Here are some tips on how you can tackle the difficulty of journal reading. 

Picture of someone writing. that is meant to represent annotations while dissecting a research journal.
Reading a research journal and understanding its key points can be achieved with just a few tips of advice! 
  1. Read the abstract

Begin by reading the abstract of the journal article. Often, this section will provide a framework of key topics to look out for as guiding markers throughout your reading. Sometimes, the abstract will be written in novice language, where the topic and goal of the journal is easily conveyed at the beginning of the article. Other times, the abstract will be more technical and difficult to comprehend. Nonetheless, the abstract is the perfect place to start in order to generally familiarize yourself with the purpose, methodology, results, analyses, and conclusion discussed in-depth throughout the rest of the article. I tend to use the abstract as a way to gauge whether this article is applicable to my topic of interest and in what way the article will broaden my understanding of the subject. Try to connect this general overview with thinking about why you might have been assigned this reading and how it connects to your overall goal. 

  1. Use the headings as guidelines. 

The headers throughout a journal will often serve as a guide for annotations and for an understanding of the key points of the journal’s purpose. Look through the main points of the methodology to grasp a general understanding of what methods were used to collect the data and potential reasons behind the selection. Guide yourself through the larger points of the results the journal author discusses in order to understand how the collection and analysis of data might weave into the author’s greater purpose in conducting the investigation. Read through the conclusion of the journal in order to understand the significant findings of the author and the potential future investigations within the research topic. Often, the researcher will mention how this research could be carried further to expand its impact on the greater society. Don’t be too caught up on the details, but don’t be afraid to ask questions to professors or nearby mentors who can provide greater insight into what you’re reading. I will often write annotations such as personal takeaways or remaining questions in the margins. When returning to the article after some time, I find that these annotations alongside the use of the headings as guidelines serves as a refresher of my inquiries and insights from the reading.

  1. Turn to other resources. 

Building a stronger understanding of the topic with other accessible sources of information can often be helpful to solidify how you comprehend the knowledge. Look up different articles or browse through the references of the journal you’re reading to have other readings to turn to. These might help you with gaining more background knowledge on the topic of research and better contextualize the information in the journal. I have found that by browsing through other articles written about a similar topic, I am able to gain multiple perspectives on the importance and motivation for the work conducted. You can also look for on-campus resources around reading strategies that can support your work (for example, McGraw has materials from a previous academic strategies workshop on efficient reading strategies).

  1. Process what you’ve read. 

After finishing a particular section of the reading, annotate a condensed summary or jot down notes to paraphrase what you’ve just read. Write down thoughts and other questions you might ask your professor or consult with other resources. Often, creating a visual representation of your thought process will also help. Feel free to draw out a concept map connecting the different key concepts of what you’ve read and format the knowledge from the dense reading in a way that is more easily processed. 

Taking a shot at reading a dense journal article for the first time will often come with challenges and frustration. However, the amount of knowledge you can obtain from an in-depth perspective on a topic will be helpful in your comprehension of the research in the long-run. Processing large volumes of information will likely also prove a skill useful for later in life. So the next time you feel stuck with where you are reading, try out these tips! 

— Rebecca Cho, Natural Sciences Correspondent