How to analyze any article

The misconception we carry about many of our faculty, preceptors, and mentors is that they have read everything ever written. At times this might seem true, it’s almost always not. But that’s not to say they aren’t well-read. In fact, in their own specialty area, or area of interest, they are incredibly well-read; that is, in terms of truly comprehending the core evidence. In reality, they may have read fewer papers, books, and guidelines than you have done while in school. But what they have read, they’ve read well. They mastered these guidelines, meta-analyses, and landmark papers. They became peers with their authors and entered into authorship in their own right. It’s commonly said that “a good student frequently becomes a teacher, and so, too, a good reader becomes an author.”

So how does any pharmacist gain this level of experience and knowledge? I’m afraid it’s not by reading everything imaginable. That simply isn’t possible, nor desirable to do. But instead, learn to read well. In reading well, you can further your understanding and raise your professional experience to the level you wish parallel to your efforts.

A key aspect to not only staying engaged in work but also feel empowered to make decisions is to routinely read the scientific literature. Although many of us have had not-so-great experiences with Journal Clubs in our pharmacy education, reading scientific papers does not have to be this painful. In fact, it can be fulfilling. But the simple matter of truth is that these papers must ultimately be read. There are, however, methods that you can employ to become an efficient and effective reader of the scientific literature. 

Although not specifically about how to read a scientific paper, “How To Read A Book” can teach us principles that hold true across any form of written media. So let’s examine the four key aspects of reading that you should be aware of to start improving your reading economy. Those four elements are:

  1. Elementary reading (Beginning, middle, end)
  2. Inspectional reading (skimming systematically – get the most out of a book within a given relatively short time yet too short of a time to get everything that could be gotten)
  3. Analytical reading (Organized, thorough, complete – the best reading you can do)
  4. Syntopical reading (Comparative reading – reading many papers/books at once and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve)

In a previous post, I discussed the key elements of inspectional reading. Knowing that we can evolve from our current reading methods (usually elementary reading only), inspectional reading is the first step in this process. The next development is understanding a framework for analytical reading.

Analytical reading is reading that is done at the highest level of focus and comprehension you can muster. But this method of reading is not for every single manuscript you pick up. Only after employing an inspectional reading technique on a set of articles, you’ll then be able to identify which ones require further reading and comprehension. 

There are three stages of analytical reading. The first stage of analytical reading is to determine what is the article about as a whole. The second stage of analytical reading asks what is being said in detail, and how? Lastly, the third stage of analytical reading outlines the rules for criticizing a manuscript as a communication of knowledge.

Let’s examine further the first stage of analytical reading. 

The first stage of analytical reading – What is the article about as a whole?

  1. Classify the article according to the kind and subject matter
    • Is this a meta-analysis, randomized controlled study, observational study, etc.?
  2. State what the whole article is about with the utmost brevity
    • Consider describing it using a PICOTS format
  3. List its major outcome measures in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole
    • What was the primary outcome and its results? Similarly, what were the secondary and safety outcomes?
  4. Define the problem or problems the author(s) are trying to solve.
    • State the hypothesis, and key study objective

Practice this systematic approach to reading your next article of interest. After you’ve systematically skimmed through it to ensure its value to you to invest your time and effort, begin to read it in this organized, thorough, complete manner. Seek to digest the article in the best reading you can do.

More from EM PharmD related to How to analyze any article:

How to read a scientific article

How to analyze any article