How to Dissect a Journal Article

Here at NARIC, we add about 300 items to our collection each month, and most of these are peer-reviewed research articles from major journals in the field. Scientific research articles may seem daunting to read: They may be long, use technical wording, or contain complex tables and graphs. However, by breaking down a research article into its parts, you may find it easier to understand the main points of the article. Here is a breakdown of how most research articles are organized:

  • Title: The article title explains the most important findings, usually in 15 words or less.
  • Abstract: The abstract is a summary of what the researchers were studying, the methods they used, a preview of what they found, and why the findings are important. Use the abstract to decide whether or not to read the full article. When a study has multiple findings, researchers will usually put the most important findings in the abstract.
  • Introduction: The introduction explains why a particular research question is important, and what past researchers have studied on the topic. For example, an article about a new treatment for low back pain might start with an introduction explaining how common low back pain is, its impact on people who have it, and treatments that have been tested in the past.
  • Methods: The methods section explains how the researchers conducted their study, including how they found their participants, what the participants did during the study, and what data they collected.
  • Results: Researchers will describe their findings in detail in paragraph form and may also present tables or graphs summarizing their results. Some readers prefer to skip straight to the tables and graphs to understand the findings, while other readers may read the text first and then look at the tables and graphs to hone in on specific details.
  • Discussion: In this final section, the authors will recap their most important findings, compare them with findings from past researchers, and describe the strengths and limitations of their study. They may also recommend future research topics to build on their findings.

Most of the articles you find in our collection follow this format. You may also find articles that present a review of recent research, recommend guidelines for diagnoses or treatments, or offer commentary. There’s a lot of exciting research happening in the NIDILRR community and we encourage you to explore our Research In Focus series for lay-language summaries of new findings, as well as these research summaries from other grantees:

If you’re new to reading journal articles, here are a few resources to help: