How To Read (And Understand) Academic
Journal Articles Quickly & Efficiently

For Your Dissertation, Thesis Or Proposal Literature Review

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | May 2020

If you’ve just started your literature review process, you’re probably sitting on a pile of scientific journal articles and papers that are (1) lengthy and (2) written in very dense, academic language that is difficult to digest (at the best of times). Depending on your field of study, you might also be seeing all sorts of advanced statistics and number crunching going on in these journal articles… And chances are, you’re not a statistician or math wiz.

How to read scientific journal articles quickly and efficiently.

It’s intimidating, for sure – and you’re probably wondering how on earth you’re going to get through it all and make sense of it so that you can write your literature review chapter.

You might be asking yourself some of these questions:

  • Do I need to read every journal article to make sure I cover everything?
  • Do I need to read every section of each article to understand it?
  • If not, which sections should I focus on?

First things first, relax (I can feel your tension!). In this post, I’m going answer these questions and explain how to approach your review of the literature the smart way, so that you focus only on the most relevant literature and don’t waste time on low-value activities.

So, grab a nice hot cup of coffee (or tea, or whatever – just no beers) and let’s take a look at those questions, one at a time.

Coffee before reading journal articles

Question 1:

Do I need to read every journal article on my topic
when doing my literature review?

The good news is that you don’t need to read every single journal article on your topic. Doing so would just be a waste of your time, as you’re generally looking to understand the current state of the literature – not the full history of it.

But… and this is an important but. You do need to read quite a bit to make sure that you have a comprehensive view of the current state of the literature (and of knowledge) in your area of research.

Quality trumps quantity when it comes to reviewing the literature. In other words, you need to focus on reading the journal articles that are most cited (i.e. that other academics have referenced) in relation to your topic keyword(s). You should focus on articles that are recent, relevant and well cited.

But how do I know if an article is well cited?

Thankfully, you can check the number of citations for any article really easily using Google Scholar. Just enter the article title in Google Scholar and it will show you how many citations it has – here’s an example:

How to read journal articles quickly and efficiently

In fact, Google Scholar is a great way to find the key journal articles for any keyword (topic) in general, so chances are you’ll be using this to find your journal articles in the first place. Therefore, be sure to keep an eye on citation count while you’re sourcing articles. It would also be smart to dedicate a column to it in your literature review catalogue (you can download one for free here) so that you can quickly filter and sort by citation count.

A quick caveat – citation count is not a perfect metric for the quality of a journal article (unfortunately there is no unicorn metric that indicates quality). While its usually a good indicator of how popular an article is, it doesn’t mean the findings of the article are perfect (remember, the Kardashians are popular too – enough said). To the contrary, it could indicate that there’s a lot of controversy regarding the findings (sounds like the Kardashians again).

So, long story short – don’t be conned by citation count alone. Be sure to also pay attention the to quality of the journal each article is published in (you can check journal rank here), and pay attention to what other articles say about any given popular article.

Popular journal articles aren't always good

Question 2:

Do I need to read the full journal journal article
when doing my literature review?

Some more good news – no, you don’t need to read every single word in each journal article you review as part of your literature review. When you’re just starting your literature review, you need to get a big picture view of what each journal article is saying (in other words, the key questions and findings). Generally you can get a good feel for this by reading a few key sections in each article (we’ll get to these next).

That said (ah, there had to be a catch, right?), as you refine your literature review and establish more of a focus, you’ll need to dive deeper into the most important articles. Some articles will be central to your research – but you probably still don’t need to read them from first page to the last.

You dont need to read every article from front to back

Question 3:

Which sections of each journal article should I read
when doing my literature review?

To get a big-picture view of what any article is all about, there are three sections that are very useful. These three sections generally explain both what the article is about (i.e. what questions they were trying to answer) and what the findings were (i.e. what their answers were). This is exactly what you’re looking for, so these three sections provide a great way for you to save time during your literature review.

So, let’s take a look at the three sections:

1 – The abstract (or executive summary)

The abstract (which is located right up front) provides a high-level overview of what the article is about. This is giving you the first little taste of the soup, so to speak. Generally, it will discuss what the research objectives were was and why they were important. This will give you a clear indication of how relevant the article is to your specific research, so pay close attention.

Sometimes the abstract will also discuss the findings of the article, but this is not always the case (yeah, the abstract can be such a tease sometimes). If it does, it’s a bonus. But even so, you should still read the other sections, as the abstract only provides a very high-level view, and can miss out on specific nuances of the research.

2 – The introduction section

The introduction section will go into more detail about the topic being investigated and why this is important for the field of research. This will help you understand a bit more detail about what exactly they were investigating and in what context. Context is really important, so pay close attention to that.

For example, they might be investigating your exact topic, but in a country other than your own, or a different industry. In that case, you’d know that you need to pay very close attention to exactly how they undertook their research.

So, make sure you pay close attention to the introduction chapter to fully understand the focus of the research and the context in which it took place. Both will be important when it comes to writing your literature review, as you’ll need to use this information to build your arguments.

3 – The conclusion

While the introduction section tells you what the high-level questions the researchers asked, the conclusion section tells you what answers they found. This provides you with something of a shortcut to grasping the gist of the article, without reading all the dull and dry detail – yeah, it’s a little cheeky, I know. Of course, the conclusion is not going to highlight every nuance of the analysis findings, so if the article is highly relevant to your research, you should make sure to also pay close attention to the analysis findings section.

In addition to the findings of the research, the conclusion section will generally also highlight areas that require further research. In other words, they’ll outline areas that genuinely require further academic investigation (aka research gaps). This is a gold mine for refining your topic into something highly original and well-rooted in the existing literature – just make sure that the article is recent, or someone else may have already exploited the research gap. If you’re still looking to identify a research topic, be sure to check out our video covering that here.

By reviewing these three sections of each article, you’ll save yourself a lot of time, while still getting a good understanding of what each article is saying. Keep in mind that as your literature review progresses, you focus will narrow and you’ll develop a set of core highly relevant articles, which you should sink your teeth into more deeply.

save time when reviewing your literature

Let’s recap

In this post, we looked at how to read academic journal articles quickly and efficiently, to save you many hours of pain while undertaking your literature review.

The key takeaways to remember are:

  1. You don’t need to read every single journal article covering your topic – focus on the most popular, authoritative and recent ones
  2. You don’t need to read every word of every article. To start, you just need to get a high-level understanding of the literature, which you can get by focusing on three key areas in each journal article.
  3. The three sections of each journal article to review are the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion.
  4. Once you’ve narrowed down your focus and have a core set of highly relevant, highly authoritative articles, you can dive deeper into them, paying closer attention to the methodology and analysis findings.

And there you have it – now go on and hammer through that pile of articles at warp speed. While you’re at it, why not also check out our other posts and videos covering research topic ideation, dissertation and thesis proposal, literature review, methodology, analysis and more.

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