Deciding which academic articles to read can feel like an intimidating task, particularly if your research interests are in a well-established field. A keyword search in online databases such as EconLit, PsycInfo, PubMed, SCOPUS, and Web of Science may yield hundreds or even thousands of results. The following are some tips for finding relevant literature.
Start with review articles
For early career researchers, it is often good to begin with review articles (secondary research articles) that summarize and synthesize published research on a topic. Within those review articles, you can identify influential or seminal primary research articles that will also be important to read.
Try other disciplines
More experienced researchers will already be familiar with the influential literature, and they may want to read newer literature or corresponding literature from other disciplines. A researcher studying social media may need to read journals in psychology or sociology, for example, but may also find the mass media and communication literature relevant. Indeed, some studies may span more than one angle at the same time and involve multidisciplinary research.
Researchers conducting interdisciplinary research that involves new fields touching on more than one discipline need to locate journals from other fields. Alternatively, they could ask colleagues for suggestions of articles on similar theories, constructs, or studies to those in their discipline.
Refine your searches
Researchers in a relatively new area of research (e.g., particularly one involving emerging technology) may find it difficult to locate substantial or rigorous publications. This, in turn, may require some creativity in choosing search keywords, or broader and more creative approaches to searching databases. Try different combinations of key words using Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT).
With the appropriate strategy, and with practice, you will be able to quickly locate and select relevant articles to read, so as to keep updated in your field and topic.
When you read empirical (original) research articles, it may seem logical to read them as you would read a book—from start to finish. But this approach can waste time, especially if you are a slow reader, or if you have many articles to read. A typical research article shows the title and author information, followed by the Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, and References. This structure is used by many journals, and recognizing this structure can help you when reading.
To save time, here are some reading tips:
- Read the Title and Abstract—You can do this quickly to gain an overview of the article and see if the topic is of interest. Most abstracts contain one or two sentences on the background, aims, methods, results, and conclusions.
- Assess your knowledge of the topic—Have you read similar papers? Are you familiar with the terminology? Do you understand why or if the hypothesis is relevant? If not, you could read a review paper to supplement your knowledge.
- Read the last paragraph of the Introduction—Find the study aims, which typically come after the general introduction, current state of the field and the problem in the field. The aims will address the problem.
- Examine the Figures and then read the Results—The Figures usually represent the flow of the Results, and this order tells a story. Here is where you find out what happened. Note also that each subsection of the Results often corresponds to one figure.
- Read the Discussion for an interpretation of the findings—The Discussion section will summarize the findings, their relevance, and the implications for the field.
Using the above strategy, you can efficiently extract all the relevant information from the paper. If necessary, you can read the whole article, or specific sections, in detail. For example, if you need more background information, you can read the whole Introduction. This section also provides references to other papers on the same topic. If you need details on how the study was done, you can read the Methods section.
If you are reading a theoretical paper in computing, mathematics, or engineering, or a paper in the humanities, you will likely need to read it from the start to the end. This is because authors of these papers will usually develop their argument in a logical and linear order; therefore, the article should also be read in this way.
While you are reading, take notes and mark any interesting parts (e.g., annotate the PDF on your screen). In that way, you can immediately find what you are looking for if you come back to review the article again later.