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How to Write a Critical Review 

(Summarize a Research Article)

'...badly written papers are most often written by people who are not clear in their own minds what they want to say.'  - John Maddox

Summarizing research articles will help you to develop your critical thinking skills and your ability to express yourself  in the written form.  Here are some practical hints on how to summarize a research article. A research article is written to get across a lot of information quickly to a reader. Reading such articles can be tedious and sometimes frustrating unless you are familiar with scientific writing and the reasons for this style. Research articles are highly structured to make information easy to find. Unlike literary writing, scientific writing emphasizes quantifiable information; as a result, the writing is very lean and extra words are avoided.

A research article has the following major sections: Title Page, Abstract, Introductions, Method, Results, Discussion, References, Tables and Figures. An article summary highlights the information in the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Before you can write such a summary, you need to read and understand the article.

Portions of this handout were drawn from Pechenik (1993).

Reading the Article
Allow enough time. Plan to spend at least one half of the time you devote to this assignment to reading and understanding the article. Before you can write about research, you have to evaluate it. Before you can evaluate it, you have to understand it. Before you can understand it, you have to digest it. Before you can digest, you have to read it, thoroughly. This takes more time than most students realize.

Scan the article first. You will get bogged down in detail if you try to read a new article from start to finish. Initially you should briefly look at each section to identify:

  • the research question (stated in the Abstract and Introduction)
  • the hypothesis (-es) (in the Introduction)
  • the test of the hypothesis (in the Methods)
  • the findings (in the Results, including tables and figures)
  • how the findings were interpreted (in the Discussion).
Underline key sentences or write the key point (hypothesis, design, etc.) of each paragraph in the margin. It may also be helpful to write down these key points on a summary sheet as you come across them.

Read for depth. After you have highlighted the question, hypothesis, findings, and interpretations, go back to the article to read about each area in more detail. Now you should expect to read each section more than once. Expect not to fully understand the article the first time. You will have to read it more than twice before you can talk about it in your own words.

Read interactively. As you read, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I writing this down?
  • What is especially interesting about this information?
  • How does the author support the hypothesis?
  • Is the argument/thesis convincing?
  • How does this article relate to the course?
  • Is there a relationship between this information and what I've already written?
  • How does the design of the study address the question posed?
  • What does this study contribute toward answering the original question?
  • What aspects of the original question remain unanswered?
  • What are the controls for each experiment?
  • How convincing are the results? Are any of the results surprising?
  • What is the main point of this journal article?
  • Are there supporting or subsidiary points also made?
  • How does the journal article contribute to the field?

Plagiarism and taking notes. Plagiarism is presenting someone else's work as your own. Most plagiarism is unintentional, from faulty note-taking and poor understanding of what is being reported. To avoid it:

  • Take notes in your own words.
  • Remember that you are digesting information, not swallowing it whole. If an idea is relevant to your topic, you should be able to summarize it in your own words. If you can't, you probably don't understand it.
  • Avoid writing complete sentences when note-taking.
  • When note-taking, distinguish between what the author wrote and your comments about it (e.g., use different inks or put a star next to quoted sections).

To help you determine the quality of the research articles you are reading, you must read these research evaluation tips.   Not only will these tips assist you in developing a better eye for good research, they will spark ideas for your journal article summary.

Writing the Article Summary
Like an abstract in a published research article, the purpose of an article summary is give the reader a brief, structured overview of the study that was done. It is important that you understand the writing an article summary is a low-stress activity.  By using these tips, the task becomes very easy.  To write a good summary, you must know (a) what is important to say and (b) how to condense important information. The better you understand a subject, the easier it is to write both knowledgeably and briefly about it (this is the rationale for essay exams).

Getting started.

  • Put down your pen and read all your notes to get an overview.
  • Eliminate irrelevant notes. Drop anything that does not connect with something else in your notes (the earliest-taken notes are the most likely ones to be dropped).
Write a first draft. Use the same order as the article itself used. The number of suggested sentences to use is given in parentheses below after each section. This number is arbitrary, but is meant to give you an idea of how much detail is needed to summarize each section of the article.
  • Announce the research question and explain why it is interesting (usually 1 sentence).
  • State the hypothesis/hypotheses tested (1 sentence).
  • Briefly describe the methods (what was done? E.g., design of study, how many subjects, what they did, what was manipulated [independent variables], what was measured [dependent variables] (1-3 sentences).
  • Describe the results (what was found? 1-3 sentences).
  • Outline what the author considered the key implications of the study (usually 1 sentence). Avoid overstating the importance of the findings. Be modest rather than expansive.
  • Remember: the results, and the interpretation of the results, should directly relate to the hypothesis that was tested.
For the first draft, focus on content, not length. (It will probably be too long.) You can condense it later as needed. Try writing the hypotheses, methods and results first, then the introduction and discussion. If you have trouble on one section, leave it for a while and try another.

Edit for completeness and accuracy. Add information for completeness where necessary. More commonly, if you understand the article, you will need to cut redundant or less important information. Stay focused on the research question; get rid of glittering generalities. The Methods summary is often the most difficult part to edit. See the questions under 'Reading interactively' to help you decide what is and is not important.

Edit for style. Write as though explaining something to 'an intelligent, interested, naive, and slightly lazy listener' (e.g., yourself, your classmates, your parents). That is, expect your reader to be interested, but don't make them have to struggle to understand you. Don't write to your professor or TA; if you do, you will tend to leave out important details by assuming that they already know them.

  • Eliminate wordiness, including most adverbs ("very", "clearly"). Why say "The results clearly showed that there was no difference between the groups"? You lose no meaning if you just say "There was no difference between the groups".
  • Use specific, concrete language. Use precise language and cite specific examples to support assertions. Avoid vague references, e.g., "this" ("this illustrates" should be "this result illustrates"). Sentences that start with "I feel" often signal unsupported statements.
  • Use scientifically accurate language. For example, you never "prove" theories in science, you "support" or "fail to find support for" them.
  • Rely primarily on paraphrasing, not direct quotes. In scientific writing, paraphrasing an author's ideas is more common than using direct quotes. For paraphrases, cite the author's last name and the year of the study (Smith, 1982); cite multiple studies in alphabetical order (Abel, 1989; Banks & Jenkins, 1979; Cain, 1994). When you do use direct quotes, also cite the page number, like this: "insert quote here" (Abel, 1989, p.93).
  • Check for spelling and typographical errors.
  • Re-read what you have written. Ask other people read it; they will catch things that you miss.
  • Pay attention to presentation. It has your name on it. Your paper should look as though you are proud of it.

A Template for the Journal Article Summary - The critical review for the academic/scholarly paper or journal artical should include the following:

  • Introduction - The title, author, purpose of the article, the source of the article, and your overall impression.  It is important that the introductory paragraph of your paper include a thesis statement which identifies three main points you will be discussing in the body (analysis) of your paper.
  • Analysis - Support your analysis with quotations and/or specific examples.  Include the following:
      • The strengths & weaknesses of the article and their relevance to the course and/or to your personal life experiences,
      • how and why the research study was conducted,
      • where and on whom the research was conducted, and,
      • the conclusions made by the researcher.
  • Conclusion - Pull the paper together:  what have you learned from the article?  would you recommend the article to other students?  describe the quality of the research.

Write your critique such that you will convince a reader that you have read and understood the article and recognize its relevance to the course.  Some students find it helpful to write the critique as though they were writing for a classmate who has not read the article.

Pacing Yourself

An important part of writing a good critique is proper planning.  Sometimes students leave writing assignments until the night before the deadline.  Don't do it!  This results in poor learning and poor quality papers.  And its obvious in the product you'll produce.  Give yourself adequate time to write, refine, and re-write.  The first draft is rarely the best that you can produce.

Remember:  focus on the learning and the writing, and the grades will take care of themselves.

Journals List

A great way to obtain journal articles is to examine journals in local & university libraries.  Acceptable journals include:

J of Abnormal Psy
J of Applied Psy
Behavioral Neuroscience
J of Comparative Psy
J of Family Psy
Contemporary Psy
American Psychologist
APA Monitor
Developmental Psy
J of Counseling Psy
J of Educational Psy
J of Experimental Psy
Psychology & Aging
Health Psy
J of Personality & Social Psy
Professional Psy: Research & Prac.
J of Consulting & Clinical Psy

The American Psychological Association provides samples of journals.  Contact APA subscriptions department at 800-374-2721 or 202-336-5600. 


Pechenik, Jan. (1993). A Short Guide to Writing About Biology, 2nd ed. New York: Harper Collins

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