How to effectively review journal articles

Now that you have identified some articles related to your research, it is time to find out what useful information they contain.  The key to reading journal articles initially is to use your time effectively, and this typically means not reading each article in its entirety on the “first pass” cursory overview.  Once a paper is determined to be relevant for your research, you should work through it carefully and make sure that you understand it thoroughly. 

Articles in a particular journal have a common subject theme (e.g. heat transfer, hydrology, signal processing, or biomedical applications) and have similar formats.  For experimentally focused research, which many of you will be conducting, the papers are often presented using the following sequential sections:  abstract, introduction, methods (and materials), results, discussion and conclusions.

This section contains a discussion of one method for reviewing articles that is often appropriate for research where experimental data are collected and analyzed.  It involves reading the sections in the order: abstract, discussion, introduction, results, and finally methods.  Note that you should always read the abstract thoroughly, but you will often skim (or not read) some of the other sections in the article for a preliminary literature search.  The goal for preliminary reading is to determine the potential relevance of the article to your research, and sometimes the abstract alone is enough to let you know that the article is not relevant.  This order also provides an efficient way to gain an initial understanding of the work, although at a superficial level. For relevant articles, look at the references section as it will help you find other articles that may be relevant to your work.

For research that focuses on development of new methodology or theoretical contributions, a more thorough reading of the paper is required.  In this case, the order should follow the paper presentation:  abstract, introduction, methodology, results, and discussion.  For these papers, the core contribution relates to the new methods which are being developed or theories that are being proposed.  Any relevant papers you initially skimmed through must be read again more thoroughly.

Document Your Search!

As you read the articles, be sure to take notes about each article.  There are numerous ways to do this, and you will eventually find a method that works best for you.  Some popular methods include:

  • Taking notes in your research notebook.  This allows you to have all of your notes in one place, and you can read the article and take notes anywhere.
  • Using a word processing or spreadsheet program to create a "literature table". Some people use this method very effectively.  You can create sections for each article, such as bibliographic info, key points, assumptions made, questions it raised in your mind, and cited work that should be read.  Using an electronic format also allows you to search your notes; it isn’t as easy trying to recall the number of the page that contains your notes in your research notebook.  However, you may not always have access to a computer when you are reading the article.  This note taking method is particularly useful when preparing to write a literature review.  It allows a researcher to sort information obtained in many papers chronologically and topically.  It also allows an individual to recognize general trends in the development of a body of research, making organization of a literature review easy.
  • Many researchers also prefer to organize their papers digitally.  Several software programs are available to accomplish this and are available to students at reduced cost.  These article organization software programs allow a researcher to automatically collect and store digital copies of papers in one easy to search database.  Many of them allow notes to be taken and attached to PDF files.  The programs allow the grouping of papers into different categories, taking the place of a literature table.  They also keep track of the bibliography information automatically and can interface with word processing programs so that bibliographies and in-text citation can be handled automatically when writing.  Some of the more popular scholarly article organization programs are:
Program URL Platform
Endnote PC/Mac
Sente Third Street Software Mac
Bookends Mac
Papers PC/Mac
Reference Manager PC
ProCite PC
RefWorks PC
Zotero PC/Mac/Linux
JabRef PC/Mac/Linux

Your lab may have a site license for one or more of these pieces of software, allowing you to install and use them for free. Note that JabRef is open source, and is therefore free. There are also programs, such as Aigaion which allow for the saving and sharing of journal articles on a server so a research group can easily share papers.

  • For those of you who plan on using LaTeX to write your papers, you can make your notes in BibTeX. BibTeX is a handy LaTeX add-in which allows you to keep all of your bibliography information and notes in one file, and then automatically reference them in your document.  It is flexible and allows you to format your references easily according to the requirements of different journals/conferences in which you may want to publish your work.