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How to Read a Scholarly Article

Tips for reading academic articles and books like a pro.

The Scholarly "Conversation"

An academic book or journal article is not an isolated, self-contained package of information. Rather, every academic text represents one intersection in a network of ideas and debates that scholars have been tracing through their writing, sometimes over long periods of time. Think of each academic text as one contribution to a scholarly conversation.

In most academic texts, the authors will provide you, the reader, with an outline of the conversation that's been going on so far. This is called the Literature Review. In books, the literature review is often in the introductory chapter. In journal articles, it may also be in the introduction, or there might be a section conveniently labeled "Literature Review."

Whatever it's called, a literature review presents and evaluates previous scholarship on a topic, identifies an unsolved problem or unanswered question in the field, and reveals how the authors plan to resolve this gap in our understanding. In the sciences and social sciences, these elements are often stated explicitly. In the humanities, you may have to infer the gap or the plan to resolve it from the authors' narrative or footnotes.

Consider this...

Just like academic books and articles have a common pattern, the literature review also follows a common pattern of its own. With some variation in style across the disciplines, most literature review sections make these three rhetorical moves:

  • Establishing a Territory
    • The author makes topic generalizations of increasing specificity to indicate the field of study under review
  • Establishing a Niche
    • The author challenges existing interpretations, or points out a gap in knowledge that requires additional study
  • Occupying a Niche
    • The author announces the present research that will solve the problem or fill the gap identified above

Look for these rhetorical devices the next time you read the literature review section of an academic book or article.

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