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Graduate Research: Guide to the Literature Review

This guide is intended to introduce basic concepts related to preparing a literature review in the fields of information systems, information security, and computer science. Research requires time, patience, creativity, and problem-solving.

Introduction to reading a scholarly article

On this page you will learn the difference between scholarly and other types of journals, will learn how to read scholarly articles efficiently, and will have the opportunity to practice a bit.


  1. About scholarly and technical journals in IA/IS/CS
  2. Article sections
  3. Tips for reading a research article
  4. Practice reading scholarly articles

About scholarly and technical journals in IA/IS/CS

Magazines and journals take distinct forms based on their purpose and audience. In the case of scholarly journals and technical/trade journals, they have the same audience -- a particular profession or group of people working in the same discipline. Scholarly journals and technical/trade journals are also alike in that the articles within both are typically written by professionals in the discipline. However, these two types of journals differ in terms of purpose. 

  • "Technical journals" and "trade journals" help someone do their job better by providing current news of importance to the profession as well as job postings and ads relevant to the profession.  Examples of technical journals include Network Computing and IEEE Spectrum.


  • The purpose of scholarly journals (also called "research journals") is to report original research -- that is, newly reported research carried out by the person or persons writing the article. Credible scholarly journals use a peer-review process to ensure the quality of their articles. Examples of scholarly journals include Journal of Management Information Systems, Journal of Applied Security Research, and IEEE Transactions on Computers.scholarly-journal-covers


Most reading is now done online, and often the articles are found separately  --not in the context of the journal or magazine in which the article was published. 

  • This can add to the difficulty of distinguishing technical/trade articles from popular articles, because the intended audience may be unclear.
  • Scholarly research articles are easier to identify because they usually follow recognizable formats and explicitly state that they are reporting the authors' research. 
  • However, scholarly research articles may be published by disreputable publishers -- publishers that use poor or no peer-review.

If you would like a more detailed explanation, read on...

  • Articles written for a general audience, even if the topic is serious, do not go through scholarly peer review. You can assume that articles published in magazines for the general public are not peer-reviewed. Such magazines range from popular ones that entertain such as People Weekly to substantial news magazines such as Time or Atlantic Monthly or MacWorld.
  • Articles written for a specific professional audience (such as teachers, business managers, animators, computer scientists) may be scholarly, or they may be technical/trade articles. Technical/trade articles usually do not, but sometimes may, go through a peer review process.
  • The key characteristic of a scholarly article is that it reports original research or original theory. The word "original" means that the author or authors have done the research study or have developed the theory or model that they are reporting. This content is critical for distinguishing scholarly articles from technical/trade articles. While technical/trade articles are very useful for keeping their audience up-to-date about tools, techniques, and news that help them do their jobs better, these articles do not report original research.
  • Some secondary characteristics MUST be found in any scholarly article but may, also, be found in some technical/trade articles. A scholarly article will always have a bibliography, because the author(s) must demonstrate  knowledge of pre-existing relevant research by others and must show how their research contributes to existing knowledge.  However, a technical/trade article may also include a bibliography, so this characteristic (having a bibliography) cannot be used on its own to distinguish technical/trade from scholarly articles.
  • Original research studies tend to have a similar format (although this can vary by discipline) that includes introduction, literature review, methods, results, and discussion. When you see this format, you can assume the article is scholarly. Also, when an author refers to "this study" or "this research," that's a clue that the author is reporting original research. Of course, a bogus article could be written in this format to appear to be scholarly when it's not, so it does matter that the source of the article is a reputable journal or journal website or that you found it using a reputable research database.
  • The easiest way to know that an article is scholarly (though not necessarily peer-reviewed) is to find it using a source that only includes scholarly articles. Research databases for specific disciplines will often include only (or primarily) scholarly articles. For example, PubMed (for health and medicine) and Physical Education Index fall into this category. However, other discipline-specific research databases may contain a mix of scholarly and technical/trade articles, so you'll need to evaluate whether any given article is scholarly or not.
  • Research databases that include articles that range from popular and substantial news articles to scholarly articles -- such as Academic Search Premier in EBSCOhost or Proquest Research Library -- will often include a search option to limit your search to only scholarly articles. Use this feature to eliminate popular articles and save time, but be aware that the search results may include the non-scholarly articles (editorials, opinion pieces) that are sometimes included in scholarly journals; or it may in some other way mis-identify an article as scholarly. You'll need to evaluate whether the article you select actually is scholarly.


Article Sections

While some articles may label the sections differently, the main sections you will often find within a research article include:

Title: Provides an Overview
Paper titles are usually succinct, stand-alone overviews of a paper's contents. So, if you are new to a field and/or subject, it is useful to take note of the words used in the title as they may provide you with useful keywords to use in any literature searches you may perform.

Keywords: Key Phrases for Study
Some journals include key phrases. Key words often provide additional information about important parts of the study, such as subject population, outcome measures.

Abstract: Summarizes the Article
The purpose of the abstract is to provide the reader with a succinct summary of the article. Thus, the abstract should provide information about the specific research problem being investigated, the methods used, the results obtained, and what the results of the study mean in the larger context of the research study and in some cases the field of study. This means that the abstract is a good place to look first if you are trying to decided whether or not the paper is relevant.

Introduction: Introduces the Paper
The introduction section generally provides an overview of the research problem being studied. Hypotheses (both explicit and implicit) should be clearly presented here.

Literature Review: Provides Context for the Paper
The literature review discusses past research on the topic in order to give readers a sense of why the research is important, what has been written on the topic in the past, and how this paper will add to the research.

Methods Section: Details the Research Methodology
The experimental section will provide detailed information on how the authors accomplished the experiments/surveys described in their paper.

Results: Presents the Research Findings
Data obtained from the study are introduced. Results are typically presented either in the text or in figures/data tables.  Be sure to look at text, figures and tables to see all results.

Discussion/Conclusion: Interprets the Research Findings
Results are interpreted. Results are usually put into a broader research context and incorporated into current knowledge in the field.

Even the bibliography represents the scholarship of this article’s author(s). You may not know the field intimately, but you can glance and get a few ideas quickly.

Note: The structure of the article will be affected by the nature of the research being reported.  For example, research papers in science typically follow a standard format that includes sections for introduction, literature review, methods, results, and discussion. A hands-on look at the different sections of a research article can be found here: "Anatomy of a Scholarly Article."

However, the nature and range of research approaches related to information technology produces articles with more variation in structure.  For example, a design science research article, reporting on the development and evaluation of an artifact, will have section labels appropriate to that type of research.

Tips for Reading a Research Article

Research articles have a formal structure that allows you to move from section to section easily. The key to effective reading of research articles is to use this formal structure to your advantage.

Tip 1. Do not read the article sequentially from first page to last. This will only get you bogged down in the details, and make it difficult to make overall sense of it.

Tip 2. Do read the following sections in order: abstract, introduction, discussion, and any tables and graphs.

  • Abstract
    Gives you a quick, easy to understand overview of the research goals and findings.  
  • Introduction
    Skim the background (literature review). Focus on finding the purpose of the research, and any hypotheses being tested.
    If the introduction is different from the abstract, go with the information given in the Introduction. 
  • Discussion
    Explains what was found (or how successful the study was), and any problems encountered by the researchers.
    If different from the abstract, go with the information given in the Discussion.
  • Tables and Graphs
    Provide data about the study population and the results (statistics).

Tip 3. Do read the entire article sequentially, after you have scanned the sections above and have decided to include it in your literature review.

Practice reading scholarly articles

Follow the instructions below to practice what you have learned about reading a scholarly article.

 lock iconNOTE: When off-campus, you will be required to login with your DSU credentials when you link to the articles below. 


1. Scan this article and answer the question immediately below it.

Dejaeger, K., Verbeke, W., Martens, D., Baesens, B. (2012). Data mining techniques for software effort estimation: A comparative studyIEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, 38(2), 375-397. DOI: 10.1109/TSE.2011.55

Question (click on question for answer):

Using the "Tips for Reading a Scholarly Article" elsewhere on this page, what are the 4 sections of this paper that you would read to gain an initial understanding of its content?


2. Scan this article and answer the question immediately below.

Luo, X., Warkentin, M., & Li, H. (2013). Understanding technology adoption trade-offs: A conjoint analysis approach. The Journal of Computer Information Systems, 53(3), 65-74. Retrieved from

Question (click on question for answer):

Using the "Tips for Reading a Scholarly Article" elsewhere on this page, what are the 4 sections of this paper that you would read to gain an initial understanding of its content?


3. Scan this article and answer the question immediately below.

Baysal, O., Holmes, R., Godfrey, M.W. (2013). Developer dashboards: The need for qualitative analytics. IEEE Software, 30 (4), 46-52. DOI: 10.1109/MS.2013.66.

Question (click on question for answer):

Using the "Tips for Reading a Scholarly Article" elsewhere on this page, where do you find the content in this paper that aligns with each the 4 sections described in the "Tips"? Use section names or page numbers, as needed, to answer.


4. Return to this article and answer the question immediately below.

Baysal, O., Holmes, R., Godfrey, M.W. (2013). Developer dashboards: The need for qualitative analytics. IEEE Software, 30 (4), 46-52. DOI: 10.1109/MS.2013.66.

Question (click on question for answer):

Is every article in this journal peer-reviewed? To find out, go back to look at the article again. Immediately above the article title, find the breadcrumb link labeled "Software,IEEE" and click on it to get to information about this journal. Read "About journal."