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Analyzing Scholarly Articles

Sometimes you are asked to read an article in a scholarly journal and write a critical analysis of it. Instructors often assign this sort of analysis so that students can demonstrate that they’ve read and comprehended the article and thought critically about what it says. In writing an analysis, you begin by prewriting; then, you formulate a thesis and offer support from the article.

Prewriting

Begin by reading the article carefully. Then make notes about the various parts of the article and how they contribute to its thesis, or argument.

Title. Consider the title of the journal article or essay. It may help you determine information about the article’s audience or the author’s intentions. A title can also give clues about the author’s attitude towards the subject or set the tone for a paper. For example, “Racial and Social Class Gradients in Life Expectancy in Contemporary California” (C. A. Clarke and others) creates a scholarly tone for a report on a sociological study of health. In contrast, “Ten Things Everyone Should Know about Race” (Public Broadcasting System) is geared to an educated but more general audience.

Introduction. The introduction of a scholarly article usually reviews some of the literature on the issue (what others have written about it) and provides insight into a problem. It typically explains why a problem is worth considering and why previous attempts to solve it were inadequate or not even attempted. It may briefly introduce methods used to investigate the problem. It often ends by stating the main argument that will be advanced in the article (the thesis) or the author’s primary findings.

Thesis. Understanding the main argument is paramount to your analysis. Distinguish between the subject and argument. The subject is the topic, such as stem cell research. The argument is a statement such as “Stem cell research should not be restricted because it is essential to finding a cure for cancer.” The thesis in a scholarly article is often found in the abstract and in the first few paragraphs.

Ex .1  By identifying patterns of cross-orientation friendships, this study shows which straight students might learn about sexual diversity from which sexual minority students. At the school level, cross-orientation friendships serve as bridges between sexual minority and straight student population. . . The results from the present study will indicate where these bridges are built in relation to social group boundaries. (From “Patterns of Cross-Orientation Friendships in High Schools,” K. Ueno)

Ex .2  The common school prepares immigrant youth not only through Americanization and socialization, but also through academic preparation and linguistics training. (From “Preparing for Citizenship: Immigrant High School Students’ Curriculum and Socialization,” R. M. Callahan and others)

Methods. Some articles, especially in the sciences, technical fields, social sciences, and education, have a detailed section explaining the research methods used in the study, while articles in the humanities may not even mention methods. If considerable space is devoted not only to describing and explaining but also to justifying methods, you should assume that those methods are controversial for that sort of study. You will want to evaluate whether the methods described seem appropriate to answering the research questions posed in the introduction.

Evidence and Results. Once you understand what the article is trying to achieve (the thesis), and how it has gone about investigating an issue (the methods), turn your attention to the results and evaluate them.

In a more scientifically or technically-oriented article, findings will be clearly labeled and often presented in tables or graphs and discussed. As you evaluate the evidence, look for how well it is tied to the thesis/research questions, look for missing details or gaps, and consider the quality of interpretation.

If you are looking at an argument based on logic, make sure you can follow every step and that each sub-claim is well-supported. Look for unwarranted assumptions or generalizations. Is the writer appealing to logic or relying too heavily on emotion or reputation?

Critical Evaluation: So What?

In writing up your critical essay, you will need to include the following:

  • Summary of the article you are critiquing: this shows you understood it. Provide a brief overview of what the article was trying to do (i.e., the problem), methods, if relevant, and the thesis or findings. Make sure to mention the title and author’s name.
  • Your critical evaluation of the article. You might address the article’s problem, methods, or findings, or all of these, offering specific support from the text itself (using paraphrase or direct quote and indicating the page number) for your observations. Below are some guiding questions to help you think of what to write:
    • Did the article ask the right question in the first place? How does it fit with other articles on the same topic? Did it miss any important studies it should have considered?
    • Did the problem match the methods? For example, to understand student behavior, were students observed or interviewed, or did all the data come from teachers?
    • Were the findings reported in a consistent and clear format? Did you notice problems in the data that the article overlooked? Did the article fail to acknowledge and explain any limitations?
    • Was the logic clear and were claims properly supported with convincing data? Did you spot any fallacies?
  • Your opinion of the article. Did you agree with the thesis or believe the findings? If everything was logical, clear, and well-ordered, yet you remain skeptical, how would you explain that? Perhaps a fundamental difference in values would explain it, or perhaps you know of counter-evidence not considered by the author.
  • Your estimation of the article’s contribution to knowledge and its implications or applications to our world.

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