How to Read a Journal Article

Colloquium: Thursday, February 26, 14:00 to 16:00  in room A 2.35 (inside the CBS Library at Solbjerg Plads)


“I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” I doubt the report—no university could be that good…”

Wayne Booth


The first thing to remember about a journal article is that it is, ideally, written by one of your peers. (One of the things that reading can discover is that the author is not really working in your discipline, and in that case your reading strategy will be very different. I’ll save that kind reading, i.e., reading outside your discipline, for another post.) By a “peer” I mean someone who has been trained in the same methods and steeped in the same theories that you have. A peer is someone who speaks your language and sees the world much like you do.

The next thing to keep in mind is that the article has been published in order to make you more knowledgeable than you would be if it hadn’t been published. That means that it addresses you as someone who already has a great deal of knowledge but who presumably does not know this thing that the article’s author has recently discovered. One of the things you’ll be noticing as you read is what the author presumes you know, and don’t know, about the subject. When you’re reading, be on the lookout for what you are actually learning from the reading. What do you know to be true after reading that you did not know before.

Paragraph for paragraph, you can apply Booth’s Oxford tutorial heuristic. Ask yourself, What is the author trying to say (trying to convince me is true) in this paragraph? You’ll be looking for what we call the “key sentence”, which should also be the focus of your own writing. Sometimes (hopefully not too often) you’ll have to construct a key sentence that is not in the paragraph. More often, the challenge is just to identify the sentence that makes the point of the paragraph. Then ask yourself, How does the author know? What kind of support does the author adduce for the claim made by the paragraph? Why should you believe it? And at this point you have to invoke your own authority as a reader, a researcher, a peer. You have to decide whether or not to believe it.

The claims in a paper are of course not just stated in any random order. They are normally grouped into sections. There’s an introduction, a background, a theory section, a methodology, an analysis, a discussion and a conclusion. Or something like that. Each section is trying to produce a different effect on you as a reader: to get your attention, to  inform, to make you expect something, to win your trust, to challenge your expectations, to reason with you about the implications of that challenge, to say goodbye. Be aware of these rhetorical postures, which change throughout an article. It might be useful to label the key sentences you’ve identified in terms of the effect its truth (or falsity) has on you.

Just as writing a paper essentially means making about 40 claims and supporting or elaborating them. Reading one means understanding about forty claims, some of which you already knew before reading and some of which contribute something new. When reading concentrate on finding those claims. They are what the author is trying to tell you.

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