Reading journal articles

Not all journal articles are the same, but they do all tend to have some fundamental elements. If you understand what these elements are, how to find them, and why they matter it will help you to understand articles, evaluate their quality, read more efficiently, and incorporate their arguments into your own writing.

There are five elements you should aim to identify in any journal article you read:
•    A significant question or claim.
•    A position in the academic debate.
•    An explanation of the research method or approach.
•    A presentation of the findings and argument.
•    A statement of the implications and contributions of the research study.

Question or claim

The first element to look for when reading a journal article is the main question the author poses or the main claim they are making. This question or claim effectively sets the frame through which the author wants the reader to ‘judge’ their writing. The editor of the journal, when agreeing to publish the article, would have decided that the question or claim is an important one and that the author clearly demonstrated it in their writing. You will usually find this claim in the first section of the article. Once you’ve found it, use that claim as the foundation upon which the article is built. The author will also explain why their question or claim is significant and who or what it matters to. The significance might be presented in relation to the academic field, a policy or governance problem, or events that matter to politics, cultural life or an industry.

Position in the academic debate

The presentation of a question or claim is interrelated with a review of the relevant academic literature. In some articles this will be presented as a clear literature review section, in other articles the first few pages of the article will weave together the author’s claim and question with an analysis of relevant literature. This might not be titled ‘literature review’ but come under several themed subheadings.

The purpose of this section of a journal article is not just to summarise the debate, but to organise it and frame it. A good literature review will set out competing perspectives or clearly articulate shortcomings and limitations in the current scholarly debate. The purpose is to demonstrate how the author’s question and claim will respond to significant debates in the literature. Sometimes the author will claim to ‘fill a gap’ in the current debate by adding some now evidence, in other cases the author will claim to ‘correct’ or ‘refute’ a significant assumption or claim in the literature by providing confounding evidence or demonstrating how new developments change previous understandings.

The academic literature is always under construction, journal articles don’t aim to ‘end’ the debate with a final piece of definitive knowledge, but rather contribute to the ongoing effort to push debate forward. The engagement with the literature at the start of a journal article aims to position the article in relation to those debates. Sometimes the literature review will position the study’s contribution as an ‘applied’ one, other times it will be ‘conceptual’. An applied contribution is where existing ideas from the literature are taken and applied or tested in a new context. For example, if research has mainly been conducted with people in one setting (like a city); new research might test those ideas by examining people in a different setting (like a rural area). A conceptual contribution is where existing ideas from the literature are reformulated, or new ideas are proposed, as a way of contending with new developments in technology, society or culture.

At the end of this section of a journal article you should have a clear idea of the debate the author is engaging with, why that debate matters, and how they intend to contribute to it. As a reader the literature not only familiarises you with a debate but it also offers you some reference points for your own research. Often, a good way to target your reading is to go out and engage with the authors that others are engaging with. If you find a journal article about a topic or issue that is relevant to you, then check out who the author is engaging with and follow their lead. If you read authors that are citing each other then you are more likely to find a coherent conversation to ground your own thinking and writing within.

Explanation of research method or approach

Once an author has explained their question and claim, why it matters and situated it within current academic debate they will then set out how they went about doing their research. This is where they explain how they will make an ‘original’ contribution to the literature.

The media and communication field crosses a broad range of approaches. Some journals have a very systematic way of presenting research methodologies. These journals tend to come from more empirical disciplines that follow a scientific method like psychology or sociology. A journal article might label its methodology section clearly and offer a sustained and clear explanation of the methodological approach and often also an evaluation of its strengths and limitations.

Many journals also come from humanities traditions. In these articles the explanation and justification of the methodology may be more implicit, but it will always be there in some form or another. In its most basic form the author will provide a paragraph that explains how they did what they did and who has used similar methods to address similar questions.

A quantitative and scientific methodology might involve a descriptive or experimental survey for instance, where the author would clearly explain and evaluate the validity of the constructs used in the survey, the sample size, and the analytic procedures. A discourse analysis might explain the range of texts selected for analysis and the analytic procedure used to make sense of them. An interview study might explain the sample of people interviewed, the range of questions asked, how the interviews were analysed and what claims were possible from them.

Sometimes a journal article will be making a critical and conceptual argument, and therefore won’t necessarily have empirical evidence or methodology. In these articles though there is a still a method in the sense that the author will explain clearly how the argument is structured and what material it will engage with – instead of empirical material like interview, textual or survey data, it might be a scholarly debate or conceptual framework that the author is framing, critiquing and contributing to.

In the media and communication field there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ methods, or methods that are ‘better’ than others. What matters is that the author clearly explains how they did their research and how that approach was appropriate for responding to the question they are posing or making the claim they are making. You need to understand the methodology in order to understand the basis on which the author will go on to make their arguments. You might also find the methodology useful for developing your own research projects and approaches.

Presentation of findings and argument

The first three elements – the problem, literature review and methodology – clearly set out what the article is about, why it matters and how the research was done. From there the author moves into the presenting the findings and argument from the research. This is where the author makes their contribution to the literature by presenting original material and arguments.  These sections are sometimes called ‘results’ and ‘discussion’, other times they are organised under themed subheadings. In more empirical articles the results will be presented separately and then discussed. This is common in journal articles presenting survey research for instance. In other articles the results and analysis will be woven together, this is more common in qualitative and critical research articles. The structure of this section often offers a useful conceptual framework for your own writing. In the findings and argument scholars usually present concepts that you can use to structure and inform your own arguments, analysis and research.

Statement of implications and contributions of the research study

A journal article will conclude with an explanation of the implications of the research, its limitations and suggestions for further research. The author will explain what the consequences and significance of the research findings are to the scholarly debate. They will then map out what they think the next steps in research on this problem should be. You can use the conclusion as a launching point for your own arguments, taking up the questions and challenges authors arrive at in their journal articles as a starting point for your own thinking and writing. As academics read each other’s journal articles they look to the implications and suggestions of previous publications and use them as the basis for formulating their next research projects and arguments.

Placing a journal article in broader debate

You should also aim to place a journal article within the broader academic debate. The first way to do this is to go the journal article’s reference list and locate other articles that extend ideas in the article that are of use to you. Do this in conjunction with reading the article. Where the author makes a claim that you find compelling or useful and then cites it in reference to another author, go to that author’s work and read it too. The second way to place the journal article in the larger debate is to conduct a search to find out who else has cited the article since it was published. Citation is when an article is ‘referenced’ in another article after it is published. Academics use citation to follow how articles get incorporated into ongoing academic debate after they have been published. Academic publishing is reasonably slow, so you may find that articles don’t accumulate citations until two or three years after they have been published. Articles by prominent scholars or that are key to debates in the field will accumulate many citations.

The easiest way to find citations is to use Google Scholar. Search for the article you are reading in Google Scholar. When you find it you will see underneath the listing a link that says ‘Cited by…’ followed by a number. That number is the number of articles that have cited it since publications. Click on that link to go through to the list of articles and search in there for publications that are relevant to you. If there are many hundreds of citations for an article you can click the ‘search within existing articles’ box to search key terms within those articles citing the original article. If you pay attention to how an article is positioned in the broader academic debate it will help you select a collection of articles that are in conversation with one another. This will help to improve your writing because you will have identified and mapped out a shared conversation to engage with of scholars who are already mapping out and contributing to a debate that you can then join in with.

This guide to reading journal articles is from our text Media & Society.