How to read a research article
At the University of Essex, where I teach, we have introduced a new assignment to help our second years with their preparations for choosing and researching a topic for their undergraduate dissertation. It involves each of them taking a research article and writing a short report on how the author would have gone about defining their topic and building up the evidence on which it is based. We appreciate that this could be a challenging task and so, in suggesting a couple of articles they could study from my reading lists, I have included one of my own articles with the offer of explaining how I came about writing the piece. I now realise that was rash: if the task of writing a report is challenging for them, it is all the more difficult for an author to think back to where they were intellectually a few years ago: the moment has passed and none of us, I imagine, would write now precisely how we did then.
What I can do which should be of some help is to give some hints of what an historian looks for when analysing a research article. So, here are some tips, meant to be of more general use, but which grow out of some reflections on an article entitled ‘Humanism across Europe: the structures of contacts’ which was published in 2012.
Not all research articles are equal. There is no one formula for a ‘research article’ – the term covers a range of styles of writing, and appear in a variety of publications. Some discuss the results of an investigation in a single archive, usually drawing out conclusions at the end. Others are more argument-led, with the research likely to be more eclectic. This is not simply a binary opposition: it is more like a spectrum, and my article falls closer to the ‘argument’ end than the ‘research’ end. As we shall see, however, no article can omit either of those two elements. You might well ask how you judge the article’s place on the spectrum – the basic answer is to pay attention to its content and how it is constructed but there is also another element which sometimes can help.
Be aware of the context. An article never appears on its own; it always appears in a larger publication. The classic format is for a research article to appear free-standing in a learned journal – in that case, it is unlikely for there to be dialogue between it and others in the same issue – but some journals increasingly produce ‘special issues’ where a set of essays discuss a related theme. This is similar to the collection of essays, like that in which my article appeared. In such a case, the author of the article you are reading may well be aware of what the other contributors have written and be engaging with them, even if it is by consciously bringing a different perspective. Look at where my article appeared and notice who was the editor of the volume: as it was the same person as the author, you can be sure that the chapter was written in full knowledge of the other contributions. You might even conclude that its purpose was to provide an overarching interpretation, placing the chapters that preceded it within a wider argument.
Check the date. Part of the issue of context is to understand when a work was written. We know that time’s arrow travels in only one direction: an article cannot be influenced by scholarship that appeared after it – and even the most assiduous academic may not be fully up-to-date with what has been published. So, the date of publication gives something like the cut-off point (the terminus post quem non) of possible influence – but it is only approximate. How long did it take the work to reach print? Was it written as a conference paper and the revised for publication, pushing the date of original composition back further? Are you using the original version or a re-print? Make sure you understand this element of the context: in a collection of essays, the preface will help; in an article, there is often a first footnote, listing acknowledgements but also, sometimes, explaining the origins of the work. Paying attention to these details will help you appreciate where the work sits in the historiography – that is, at what point it inserted itself in existing debates. That takes us to the next and perhaps most important point.
Find the debate. Historians are argumentative (and if one of them denies that this is the case, they have proven my point). Historians thrive by placing themselves in a debate, by detecting or creating disagreement so that they can then construct a new perspective. Any article, then, is more than its research: it forwards a position. How an article does this differs. Some might not even seem to be intent on making an argument, and some might be written as if what it has to say is not open to debate. In those instances, it is your essential task to detect how it fits into the historiographical scene and how it can be used to enlighten the big issues of scholarship: this creates the possibility that you, as an historian yourself, can use an article in ways the author might not have expected. But, as historians prize argument, it is unusual not to have the position being taken placed in the foreground. Admittedly, it is rare nowadays to find an academic in our discipline launching a full-frontal attack on another (‘Prof. X shows a shocking inability to do justice to the evidence…’) – and some would say we are better for that, even if it makes scholarship less entertaining for the readers. Some might even not mention an opponent by name in the text – my own style is often to talk about ‘the standard narrative’ or to remark ‘it has been argued…’. When that happens, how do find out who they have in their sights? The solution is to heed the next piece of advice.
Follow the footnotes. The text of an article and its footnotes relate to each other like the two hands on the piano. To read an article without paying attention to the notes is like hearing a melody without its base line – or, rather, an argument without its basis in evidence. The footnotes reveal what the text might hide: they reveal the author’s debts and disagreements – but they do more than that. They do not only help you more fully understand where the historian sits in a debate; they also make explicit the evidence – the research itself – on which the article and its argument is based. This is why footnotes matter so much to historians and why we disparage other disciplines which think that citations can be confined to a brief bracket at the end of a sentence: historians live by the demonstration of sound research their footnotes display. Or, sometimes, they fall because of their poor quality; more than one scholarly reputation has been damaged by the revelation that the author’s footnotes are inaccurate or, worse, borrowed – a kind way of saying plagiarised – from others. In my own area of study, footnotes most often cite unprinted primary sources (and so list a manuscript or document by its present location), though in the article I have set my references are more often to published editions.
Evaluate the evidence. By reading both the text and the footnotes, you can build up a fuller sense of the research that lies behind the article – and you can also begin to judge the strength of its argument. You will want to ask yourself what types of evidence are used and what range. Some articles will be tightly focussed on one set of materials, others will range more widely – but always with a sense of coherent whole to them. In my article, you will find several different types of primary material used, as well as what the social sciences call ‘secondary research’; that is, some statistics based on data-sets compiled by earlier scholars. As you think about how the author developed their article, you will also want to ask yourself: what is the most significant evidence used here? Remember that the way an article is written is very rarely an unfolding of the story of how the research was conducted. It is constructed after the research was completed and will order the evidence in a manner that makes it as convincing as possible, with the result that the most significant material is unlikely to be at the very beginning (or very end) of the article. So, what you are doing is understanding how the results of the historian’s time in the archives has been organised and deployed in order to make their argument persuasive.
Sense the sections. The consequence of this is also that an article is – like an essay you write should be – a set of steps. The author needs to lead the reader through the stages of the argument as the evidence is unveiled. Sometimes (but only in a minority of cases), these steps will helpfully be flagged up by sub-divisions in an article: these might involve sub-titles or numbers or (as in my article) simply an extra line-break. By being aware of these, though, you can get a better sense of how the author has arranged the information they have gathered. Of course, it is up to you as reader to consider whether the evidence could be organised differently or supplemented by other material, with changes to the argument as a result. When you do that, you move from being a reader to being a potential author, ready to do your own research and enter the sand-pit of historiographical debate.