Research 101: How to Read an Academic Article: A Guide for Non-Academics


If you work in politics and electoral analysis, you may often find yourself wanting to read an academic article to make sure you are using peer-reviewed evidence when making strategic decisions. But unless you happen to have been trained in academic research, opening one of these articles and trying to get what you need can be daunting: You quickly find yourself drowning in paragraphs and paragraphs of academic references and technical arguments about obscure methodologies and even mathematical equations. How can you get through one of these papers and get what you need without undertaking a detour through a graduate program? 

In this article, we will walk you through how to read an academic paper so you can move on quickly to build strategy, extract messaging, and shape public policy. 

Key Takeaways
  • Do not read an academic article straight through from start to finish.
  • Academic articles have a standard structure. As a policy analyst, campaign staffer, or another similar role, you will get the most out of reading 1) the abstract; then 2) the conclusion, then 3) the graphs and figures alongside the results and discussion section, all depending on how much time you have.
  • For the most part, you can skip the remaining sections, but they might be useful in some specific situations, like deciding what else to read or looking for relevant datasets. 

The Architecture of an Academic Article 

Reading an academic article is not the same as reading a book or article in a newspaper. Academic articles have a standard organization to them so that different kinds of users can get what they need out of the article quickly. A typical article will feature standard elements, almost always provided in the same order. Sometimes they will be titled with the exact names listed here, or sometimes they will be named a bit more creatively, but they will always be present: 

  1. An abstract:  An overall summary of the article. The abstract is the most read section of any academic paper because it’s the part people will read when deciding if they want to continue onto the whole article or sections of it. Abstracts can also be accessed even when the rest of the article is behind a paywall.
  2. Introduction: The “why” of the article. This section is supposed to provide a brief motivation for the research and usually gives another version of the summary. This part of the paper usually tries to show why the question the researcher is answering matters. 
  3. Literature Review: Here, the author talks about who else has done research relevant to this topic. They may talk about the history of academic debates on the question in the article and related questions and connect the framings and findings of the current article to other bodies of academic research which use different theories, methodologies, or data. This section aims to show the original contribution of this particular piece of research. For any given question, there may be dozens or even hundreds of related studies on that topic: What is the new data set, methodology, or theoretical framework the researcher is bringing to the debate? Do they believe there are inadequacies to previous research or some aspect of the question that other researchers have overlooked? Some researchers include a detailed list of questions that they test in this section, or sometimes that is included in the following section. 
  1. Methodology and Data: In this section, the researcher explains how they conducted the research. Did they use a preexisting dataset, run an experiment, or conduct interviews? What quantitative methods did they use, or how did they transcribe and analyze the interviews? This section will provide in-depth details on how the researcher arrived at their conclusions. They may include some additional literature review here to justify their choice of methods or data. 
  2. Results: What did the researcher discover? This section lays out the full technical details of the results. 
  3. Discussion: While the results section gives the technical results, here the researcher provides a deeper interpretation. How can we understand what all the results mean when we analyze them together? Does it raise new questions or seem to resolve some long-standing debate in the field? Do some of the results seem to contradict each other, or is there a way we can reconcile them? This section might be combined with the results section. 
  4. Conclusion: This section provides another summary of the article (academics like to summarize, re-summarize, and summarize one more time just in case), folding in some more in-depth insights from the discussion section and suggestions for future avenues of research based on the findings. Researchers also often discuss the limitations of the paper here: where the data, methods, or anything else about the paper could have been better for the research to be more helpful. 
  5. Tables and figures: The data tables and figures are typically grouped at the end of the paper and referenced by number in the sections they pertain to. Sometimes they might be included directly in the sections; this is up to the preferred formatting of the journal. 

How To Read It

Academic articles can be read in many ways depending on the readers’ purposes. The main point is that people rarely read an academic article from start to finish, including academics! You can usually get what you need by focusing on key sections relevant to your goals. 

For example, a graduate student seeking to emulate the techniques used in a particular cutting-edge article in their field may find themselves rereading the methods section of an article dozens of times to understand how they could recreate the methodology with a different dataset. Or a researcher at a think tank trying to delve into a new topic might find themselves looking through the literature review section of several different articles to understand the most influential papers on that particular topic. 

As a policy analyst or campaign organizer, you will have particular sections that are the most helpful to you. So, where to focus your attention? 

First Section to Read: The Abstract 

First, always read the abstract. You may find that the paper is not about what you thought or that it does not fit the question you had in mind just from reading the abstract.

Second Section to Read: The Conclusion

If you find yourself intrigued by the abstract and wanting to know more, the next section you should read may come as a surprise. Scroll down, down, down, and read… the conclusion. Yes, the book reader in you may recoil. Still, the conclusion will provide another summary of the article with a more in-depth commentary on the findings, especially where the findings did not tie up into a neat little bow but left some messy strings hanging.

Importantly, this section is also where researchers often include the limitations of the paper. Many articles dedicate several paragraphs to delineating exactly where the research falls short. This may seem confusing: why would a researcher criticize their own paper in the paper itself? It’s helpful to recall that academic papers are peer-reviewed. Before a paper can be published, it undergoes a critical review process by other researchers in the same field. In the process, these researchers will identify the shortcomings of the paper. Often, to publish, the researcher must acknowledge these shortcomings in the paper (especially if they cannot address them by adjusting their methods, adding another dataset, or whatever other suggestion reviews might have). Once you realize this, you will notice all sorts of these hedging or self-critical review-process sentences and phrases scattered throughout academic papers.


Third Section: The Tables and Figures alongside the Results and Discussion Sections: 

If you still feel like you need more information, the tables and figures (graphs) are the next places to look. Seeing the graphical representations of the data analysis can help you understand core parts of the article more than paragraphs and paragraphs of description can. LOur guide to reading figures [link] can be helpful here, but try your best to look over the graphs with a critical eye. Do the graphs match what the conclusions say? Is there anything else they show that the author should have emphasized? 

Of course, academic graphs can often be confusing and challenging to read (and there is substantial variation in academics’ skill at making legible graphs). You might find yourself jumping between the graphs and how the author describes them in the results and discussion sections to help you make sense of things. 

While the results sections are pretty dry to read through on their own, they can be a helpful guide when read next to the graphs they describe. Looking at both these sections together is often the key to understanding how exactly the researcher came to the conclusions they did. 


When to Read the Rest

The remaining sections will typically be less useful than these first three sections, however they can still be helpful depending on what you are trying to get out of an article. Why and when might we read the remaining types of sections? 

The introduction motivates writing the paper. Why does this paper matter? Why should anyone do research on this in the first place? If you have already gotten as far as looking at the figures, you probably already have your reasons for believing the paper matters. Still, this section can help explain the full scope of problems and consequences of the paper’s question. 

The literature review can benefit anyone diving into the research on a topic they are not familiar with. Literature reviews identify the most influential and important works on a particular topic, providing a launching point for reading more among researchers who may agree or disagree with a given paper’s conclusions or approaches. 

The methodology section can be a goldmine of information, depending on what you are looking for. Do you want to know where to find datasets related to the questions in the paper and their shortcomings and advantages? You can often find that here. If a particular question has a lot of studies with contradictory findings, comparing the methods and data sections between papers can often be helpful for understanding where the divergent results are coming from.

It’s worth noting that these additional sections, particularly methods sections, are written with other academic researchers in mind. This would include researchers who want to replicate the paper’s methods, those who work in the same area and need to get into the weeds to make sense of disparate findings, and those looking to fill gaps in the literature. For those not formally trained in research methods, these sections are often technical, difficult to parse, and can make an otherwise uncomplicated topic confusing. So while it may seem counterintuitive, we would suggest sticking to the abstract and conclusion, and if necessary, evaluating the extent to which any additional sections will be useful for the information you are trying to get.