Read several times, looking for different information each time. First identify the type of article by scanning the headings and the abstract. Then read the conclusion for the main findings. Finally, read some other section critically depending on your need. If you are new to a field focus on the Introduction. If you are designing an experiment, focus on the Methods and Discussion. Assuming that you are reading the article for class or lab discussion, you will need to be able to summarize the main ideas, but also be prepared to evaluate the article.

First, Understand the IMRD Sections

Start with this matching activity to check your knowledge about the different sections.

Introduction: Concentrate on the intro if you are new to the field, if you are looking for seminal articles or if you want to find who is working on a particular aspect of interest. When you find these key authors, be sure to look through the reference list. You build your own expertise in the field by reading what the experts are doing and learning how their work relates to each others’ and to yours.

Methods: Concentrate on the methods when you are ready to develop or refine the methods you are using in your lab. Concentrate on the methods if you are ready to question the validity of the results.

Results: Concentrate on the results with the figures and tables if you want to challenge the implications that the authors derived or if you want to get ideas about how to present your own data.

Discussion: Always concentrate on the discussion. At first you will take the authors at their word on what is important about their results. Eventually, you may critique their analysis.

Conclusion: Always look at the conclusion, but it may or may not be useful depending on the style of writing.

Second, Identify the Type of Article

The most common types of articles are below. For each there is a link to an article and a link to an explanation of each type. Knowing the type of article helps you to know how it is organized and what kind of information to expect, so it will be easier for you to find that information. Most research articles are organized around the IMRD: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion.

Experimental Research

Efficient Removal of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances from Water with Zirconium-Based Metal–Organic Frameworks

Impact of a Motivational Intervention and Interactive Feedback on Electricity and Water Consumption: A Smart Housing Field Experiment

Organization: Experimental research generally follows the structure of Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusion. Interestingly in the MOF sample, the method section comes after the conclusion and is called Experimental Section. When you are first learning about a particular field, it is important to spend time reading the Introduction which gives you a lot of important background. Once you are familiar with the field, you need to focus on what is unique about this work. This is usually located at the end of the Introduction where the research gap is identified. You should be able to find the summary of important results in the conclusion. Spend some time looking at the figures.

Summarizing: You should be able to identify the innovation and the results. The author should have identified this for you already, in the introduction to the research gap and in the discussion and/or conclusion.

Evaluating: Look deeply at the methods. Was there anything innovative there, or dubious? For example did they apply a method not normally used or with not enough controls? Is there enough detail for you to replicate it? Look deeply at the results. Are there any alternative explanations for a finding? Does the result seem important, but is not signaled as such by the writer? Innovation and significance are the key elements that make an article worth printing and yet many scientists don’t signal them to the reader preferring to let the data speak for itself.

This article gives you some good clues for what to look for to evaluate: Writing a research article: advice to beginners

Systematic Review or Meta-Analysis of Others’ Research

Towards a Paradigmatic Shift in Sustainability Studies: A Systematic Review of Peer Reviewed Literature and Future Agenda Setting to Consider Environmental (Un)sustainability of Digital Communication

Transactive energy in microgrid communities: A systematic review

Organization: These two articles are arranged very differently. The first article is organized so that you can start by examining the search and exclusion criteria, the introduction for why they felt such a review was necessary and the discussion/conclusion for their results. The second article doesn’t have headings for search strategies, and the intro and conclusion are very general, so you’ll need to look at the aim or focus of the research at the end of the intro and then at the headings to see what they cover. You will need to find the part that is particularly interesting to you and then look for the original work cited there. That’s a great way to build your bibliography!

Summarizing: A systematic review or meta-analysis can be tricky to summarize. You need to give a sense of both the breadth and the depth of the research and the findings. Was the question they set for themselves very broad or rather narrow? When they describe studies do they remain relatively superficial or go deep into the methods and data?

Evaluating: Evaluate the relevance of the findings to you and your research. Evaluate the search and exclusion criteria. Is there any important work that was excluded? Any weak work that was included? Evaluate the value of the research to the field. Will it guide the field into new areas? You will only be able to answer these questions if you’ve been doing reading in the field. You need to be constantly reading in your field.

Survey or Case study

Water Supply Planning Considering Uncertainties in Future Water Demand and Climate: A Case Study in an Illinois Watershed

Designing a Closed-loop Supply Chain Network Considering Social Factors; A Case Study on Avocado Industry

Case Study: Investigate in detail one particular location, company, event, etc. in order to determine which variables or outcomes others can learn from or apply. The scholarship in a case study lies in identifying which variables are the most significant and why. This may involve developing a model to better understand the data.

Survey: Participants are recruited to answer questions. The methodology of recruitment, sampling, and question design are crucial in generating valid results.

Organization: While both of these types of research will follow a general IMRD plan, the methods will be very different. A survey must detail methods of recruitment and question design. Case studies have a lot of variation.

Summarizing: You will want to be able to explain why this study was needed and the results.

Evaluating: Take some quality time to evaluate the methods. Surveys and case studies are easy to do, but not easy to do well. Because it is difficult to recruit participants and design questions, most survey results have limited applicability. Because each case is unique, models or results will have limited applicability, so indicate where that limitation lies.