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NTR 232: Lifecycle Nutrition

Tips for Reading Scholarly Articles

To efficiently assess the relevancy and quality of an article, you can initially review certain pieces of it in a certain order:

  • the article title, name of the journal, and any keywords or databases subject terms (if available)
  • the article's abstract/summary (if available), section headings throughout the paper, and topic sentences
  • the conclusion paragraphs and data or information presented in figures/tables in the article

Reading in this order not only helps you quickly determine if the article is, in fact, worthy of closer attention, but it also gives your brain a roadmap of what to expect if you decide to read the entire article. This technique can help you better retain the information you read.

Source: Scientific Papers and Presentations, 3rd ed. (2012) by Martha Davis, Kaaron Joann Davis, pg. 39

Video: How to Read a Scholarly Article

This 2.5-minute video further explains this recommended reading strategy.

Source: Western Libraries, Western University

Evaluating Articles

Identifying articles on your topic of interest is just one part of finding appropriate articles. You must also constantly assess the credibility of what you're finding. Even if you've confirmed an article is peer-reviewed, you still look at it closely. The following questions can help guide your critical assessment of the articles you find:

  • Is the publication date appropriate for the subject matter at hand?
    • A general rule of thumb for biomedical information is not to put much stock in publications older than 5 years. However, there may be exceptions depending on the topic and your objective.
  • What are the author's credentials?
    • Also note whether s/he is from a university, research institute, or government agency. If the writer is a journalist, you should try to identify the original study or scientific article s/he is writing about.
  • Is the article peer-reviewed? 
    • Databases like CINAHL allow you to narrow your search to only peer-reviewed articles. However, you still need to be able to look for clues that an article is peer-reviewed, such as the presence of a bibliography or the appropriate credentials of the author. If ever in doubt, a good trick is to Google the journal title to find the journal's website. If the journal and its articles are peer-reviewed, it will likely say so under the "About" section of the journal's website.
  • Are there conflicts of interest or reasons to suspect bias?
    • For example, if an article claims that a certain drug is effective at treating a condition but you notice the author is a researcher from a drug company, you might investigate further to make sure s/he does not have a vested interest in publishing positive results.
  • Are sound scientific methods used?
    • Study the Methods section of an article and evaluate it for any red flags. For example, is the sample size small? If so, does the author acknowledge this as a study limitation later in the article?

One other important point: When we set out to find articles on a topic, we typically have preconceived notions or hypotheses (either formal or informal) and often expect the literature to report certain findings that support our suspicion. However, it's important to keep an open mind while searching! Don't discount articles simply because they are not in line with your thinking. Evaluation of the literature needs to be "fair and balanced." :-)

Source: Scientific Papers and Presentations, 3rd ed. (2012) by Martha Davis, Kaaron Joann Davis, pg. 39-42

Additional Resource to Critique Scholarly Articles

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