Monday, October 5, 2009

How to read a journal article

The response to the title of this entry is “it depends” (the favorite answer in social work!) How you read and the goal of reading an article vary from paper to paper, class to class, professor to professor. It also varies according to your level of education (undergrad versus graduates, first year MSW versus 2nd year versus advanced standing). If you have had coursework in research methods and statistics, you will read the article differently than if you have not. In addition, different students have different skills and abilities when it comes to understanding results.

Reed and Ellis (2003) give some guidelines for beginning social work students and most undergraduates, as follows:

How to read a research article:

1. Read the Abstract, Introduction and Discussion sections first.

2. Abstract: is a short summary of the paper.

3. Introduction: answers the questions “Why was the study done?” “What were the researchers hoping to accomplish?” “Does this study seek to repeat (replicate) another study or fill a gap in knowledge?” “Does this study disprove, update or confirm another study?”

4. Discussion: answers “What did the study find?” “What are the implications of the findings?” “How do the researchers explain discrepancies or unexpected findings?” “Were result marred by mistakes or poor methods?” “Where do we go from here? What’s next?”

5. Next, check the literature review to gain background on the study. “What has been done before?” “How does this study fit in?”

6. Skim the results section.

Generally, look for answers to the following questions as you read the article:

1. Why was this study done?

2. What were the assumptions that guided this study?

3. What have other people said about this issue?

4. What other studies have been done on this issue?

5. How was the study done?

6. How were possible errors accounted for?

7. What are the implications of the results?

8. What are the ethical considerations?

9. What theories were used?

10. How well was this study done?

11. What variables were studied?

(Derived from Reed, C. & Ellis, CA. (2003). New Directions for Writers: College Writing and the World of Work. NY: Longman, p. 247-252).

Students in MSW programs have generally had more coursework in statistics and research methods, as well as more experience reading journal articles, than undergraduates. MSW students may be expected to do more than “skim” the results section and should read the entire article. You might want to talk to your professor to determine what you will be expected to understand and critique regarding statistical analysis. It would be great if you develop enough proficiency to critique statistical methods. In addition, it is probably expected that MSW students pay more attention to the methods section of research papers than undergrads and be able to critique this section (Why did the researchers make certain choices? What was good/bad? What might have worked better? Were there errors in the method that might affect the result of the study?). It is always a good idea to try to use peer-reviewed or refereed journal articles in writing your papers. These met a higher standard of excellence than non-reviewed articles. Such articles are reviewed by experts in the field and by editors who do often examine the statistics to insure they were done properly. When you are searching through databases for articles, you can often click on “peer reviewed only” through advanced search features.

Keep writing!

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