A quick primer on the parts of a research article and the steps to evaluating its reliability.
Title – These are usually not terribly creative as they are used to succinctly explain the general topic of the research.
A title is limiting in the amount of information it can provide, so journal writers often use acronyms to shorten the title. It is a good idea to get to know the commonly used acronyms for your field and use those when searching for an article.
Journal reference – This includes the name and date of the journal in which you can find the article. It sometimes includes a DOI which is an indicator number unique to that article. It is used to help locate the article on journal databases.
It is important that the research be current, so try to limit the range when searching for an article. For example, if you were to use research that was done in the early 1980s in English Language methodology, you would probably find a move away from formal grammar instruction. While you may or may not agree with that, it is important to know where the field has moved on to since that point. Start with looking at articles that were done in the last five years. After looking at that material, work your way back in time if necessary.
Make sure the journal is reputable. Typically, it is best to use peer-reviewed journals as these have been checked out by experts in the field for things like logic errors and consistency before they get published.
Author(s) – Includes the names and their associated institutions. This is sometimes located at the bottom of the article and can also include pertinent information about related experience. Think if it as a mini biography.
It is important to know who has written the article and their areas of expertise. Take some time to research the author(s) a bit. Run a short internet search to see what else they have done. Sometimes, you will find their C.V. / Resume and you can then see if they have spoken or written on this topic before. This can also help you find additional research material based on your topic. This leads to the credibility of the article. Just because someone hasn’t written on this topic before doesn’t mean that the article isn’t credible, but if they have, it can add to the reliability of the information. Someone who has done a good deal of research on the topic is often aware of where the holes are in the research and the key work that has been done on this area.
Abstract – This is a short summary of the article. This is often the only thing available to the public if an article is behind a database paywall.
This is a good way to find an article that fits the area of research you are looking for. This is often the first place people start when looking for relevant articles.
Introduction – This is where the author(s) give their reasons for doing the study. It is often fairly general, but gives enough information to help the reader know where the article is going and what drove the authors to do the study in the first place.
In this section, check to make sure that their aren’t any holes in the logic.
Review of supporting literature – This is where the authors show that this study is different from the others that have already been done on this topic as wells as show that the foundation of the research is based on a solid academic work.
Is the information gathered missing any key research studies? Are they using credible sources? How old is the information? All of these are questions you need to ask yourself as your read this section. This is also a good place to find primary sources on your topic.
Research question(s) – This is where the author(s) write their hypothesis/es into a measurable statement or statements. The authors will return to these questions at the end of the article.
Make sure that the questions asked are logical and definable. Keep these questions in mind as you read over the method to make sure the researcher(s) are going about things in a proper manner.
Method – It is in this section that the first part of the research appears. Here is where you will find the number of participants, the place or situation in which the research takes place, the procedure undertaken, and the interments and materials used. Basically, this is what happened in the study and who was involved.
This is where you need to be really critical. Look for holes in the study. Is there be a problem with credibility or methodology? Is the sample size large enough? Does this match the research question(s)?
Analysis and Results – This is where we find the data of the study. This usually includes a number of tables and charts.
Probably the toughest section for most readers. This often involves a lot of statistical analyses and understand charts and graphs. This section is important, but can trip up people who aren’t used to reviewing this kind of data. If you feel like something is quite right with the results of the study, this is usually where it shows up. If you would like more information on how to read research stats and tables, check out this primer here.
Discussion – This is where the author(s) of the study evaluate the results and compare it to the research question(s) posed at the beginning.
This is the start of the interpretation of the data. Here is where the most logic errors occur and where you should pay the most attention. This is typically a subjective opinion based on objective results. This is also where the rubber meets the road and we can find out how this applies to this and other situations.
Conclusion – This is a short summary of what they authors feel was answered (or not answered) during the study. It also includes caveats based on possible reasons for the results and places that still need to be addressed in the future.
This is usually the second place I check when looking through research articles. It tells me what was done and what they possibly found out by doing the research. I can then go back through the article and find out how they came to this conclusion. Check again for logic errors and make note of the caveats / limitations of the study. This can also point you in the direction of future research if you are so inclined to do so.
References – This is where you find all of the material that the author(s) cited in the article.
This is an easy one. Good references usually lead to a good foundation. Bad or questionable references lead to a shaky study. A quick look through the references can help you find other material that you could use on your topic.