University of South Carolina, Arnold School of Public Health HSPM J712

How 2 Read an Article

Samuel L. Baker, Ph.D.

Be an active reader. Read to extract what you need to learn.

Read the beginning and the end first. For a formal research article, read the abstract and the opening paragraph. Read the beginning, far enough so that you have an idea why the authors did the work that they did. Then skip to the end. In a formal research article, this will be the Discussion. In a less formal article, go to the end and work backwards. You're looking for a summary of the results and a discussion of why they are important. Once you've found those, you should know what I want you to know, which is what the article is about.

Now you can select what, if anything, you want to read from the middle. If some broad statement in the Discussion seems surprising, go back to the Results section for more detail. If a Result raises a question, look through the Methods for something relevant.

For example, for the Brook et al article, "Does Free Care Improve Adults' Health," the abstract and the end tell you that giving people free care didn't make their health much better than if they had paid for their care. The end says that this is important because the authors think it implies that a lot of health care cost could be saved, without loss of health, if people had to pay for their own health care. Many of you students found that surprising, according to your written comments. You know or know of people who forgo needed care because of the expense. Going back to the Results, you can see how health was measured. You can notice that free care did make a difference for a couple of conditions with precise measures, and for the poorer population. What about the population studied? For that, go back to the Methods, where you can find that children, the elderly, and the disabled were excluded. This tells you that applying the article's conclusion to Medicare or Medicaid patients (copayments for Medicare just went up again) is no more appropriate than prescribing to children or the elderly a drug that has not been tested on those populations.

Novels and newspaper stories are meant to be read from beginning to end, but not research articles. If you read the Brook article from beginning to end, you might not realize why the age limits on the sample group matter. That fact might slip your mind by the time you get to the conclusions.

Be like a miner. Follow the clues in the geology to find the valuable nuggets. You won't read every part of every article. Maybe you will miss some nuggests, but if you try to go through everything, you will be overwhelmed and miss what's most important.

A few of the articles are written in a more literary style. After reading the end, you may decide to go back to the beginning and read them through. Bodenheimer's Paying for Health Care and Grumet's Health Care Rationing Through Inconvenience articles are like that for me. Even so, they are not mystery novels. Reading the end first won't spoil your fun.

So, be an active reader. Read the beginning and the end, then pick and choose from the middle. You'll learn more in less time. Are you reading this before you read the Brook example? If so, a gold star for you!

Formal disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author, . The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of South Carolina. Reading print this small is not good for your eyes.