Scholarly articles may look intimidating but there are tricks to using them without becoming overwhelmed. Unless you are a researcher on the exact subject, scholarly articles are NOT intended to be read in their entirety from the first word to the last! Reading the article is not your assignment, rather you are mining the article for information that relates to your topic.
Primary research articles typically include several sections: an abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion or conclusion, and a bibliography.
The abstract is a summary of the paper. It usually highlights the main question/s the authors investigated, provides the key results of their experiments, and gives an overview of the authors' conclusions. Reading the abstract will help you decide if the article was what you were looking for without spending a long time reading the whole paper.
The introduction gives background information about the topic of the paper, and sets out the specific questions to be addressed by the authors. Throughout the introduction, there will be citations for previously published articles or reviews that discuss the same topic. Use these citations as recommendations for other articles you can refer to for additional background reading.
Reading the introduction is a test of whether or not you are ready to read the rest of the paper; if the introduction doesn't make sense to you, then the rest of the paper won't either. If you find yourself baffled by the introduction, try going to other sources for information about the topic before you tackle the rest of the paper. Good sources can include reference sources; a review article or earlier primary research article (perhaps one of the ones cited in the introduction); or your instructor.
The materials and methods section gives the technical details of how information was collected. Reading the methods section is helpful in understanding exactly what the authors did. After all, if you don't understand their methods, it will be impossible to evaluate their results and conclusions! This section also serves as a "how-to" manual if you're interested in carrying out similar studies. The materials and methods section is most commonly placed directly after the introduction, or look for a URL "supplementary information" available online.
The results section is the real meat of a primary research article; it contains all the data from the experiments. The figures contain the majority of the data. The accompanying text contains verbal descriptions of the pieces of data the authors feel were most critical. The writing may also put the new data in the context of previous findings. However, often due to space constraints, authors usually do not write text for all their findings and instead, rely on the figures to impart the bulk of the information. So to get the most out of the results section, make sure to spend ample time thoroughly looking at all the graphs, pictures, and tables, and reading their accompanying legends!
The discussion section is the authors' opportunity to give you their opinions. It is where they draw conclusions about the results. They may choose to put their results in the context of previous findings and offer theories or new hypotheses that explain the sum body of knowledge in the field. Or the authors may comment on new questions and avenues of exploration that their results give rise to. The purpose of discussion sections in papers is to allow the exchange of ideas between scholars. As such, it is critical to remember that the discussions are the authors' interpretations and not necessarily facts. However, this section is often a good place to get ideas about what kind of research questions are still unanswered in the field and thus, what types of questions you might want your own research project to tackle.
Throughout the article, the authors will refer to information from other scholarly publications. These bibliographic citations are all listed in the references section or endnotes. There will always be enough information (authors, title, journal name, publication date, etc.) for you to find the source at a library or online. This makes the bibliography incredibly useful for broadening your own literature search. Particularly note if there are citations in any paragraph in the current paper; if you want more information, you can find and read the articles cited in that paragraph (contact your librarian for help)!
Adapted from Science Buddies. (2017, August 9). How to read a scientific paper. ScienceBuddies.Org. https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/competitions/how-to-read-a-scientific-paper