How to read an academic article


These notes are intended to help you develop your approach to the way that you read an academic article for study purposes, ie as part of your studies for your degree. The notes should be used alongside the example article discussed,
Flamholtz, E. (1983) "Accounting, Budgeting and Control Systems in their Organizational Context: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives", in Accounting, Organizations and Society, vol. 8, no 2/3, pp.153-169 (17 pages).
This is available on the Web at

You should download and print out a copy - it is not really appropriate to attempt to read from a computer screen as you will need to move quickly through the article whilst also following the discussion here.

Many students find difficulty in reading academic articles such as the one by Flamholtz. They tend to complain that:
"it's too difficult"
"I lose track of what the author is saying"
"I get so far (1 or 2 pages) then find I can't make any sense of it"
"I find I have to keep going back over stuff I've just read because I can't see what the author is saying"
"After a couple of pages I lose interest"

One major reason for such problems is that students attempt to read the article in the wrong way. They try to read it as if it were a short story, or novel or newspaper report (eg on a soccer match, or about the latest troubles of some celebrity or other). That is, they start at the beginning and try to read through to the end. So:

Key point number 1: academic articles cannot be read effectively in the same way as a short story, a novel or a newspaper report.


There are lots of printed materials that are not intended to be read through from beginning to end. The telephone directory is a clear example. Another example is a technical manual eg for a computer program or a motor car. Although you might read a newspaper article from start to finish, you probably won't read the newspaper itself in that way: you'll look for items that interest you, probably jumping back and forth between items in the newspaper.

Each of these examples requires you to adopt the appropriate approach to reading, depending on the purpose for which the text was produced and your own interests. As a student, you will probably be reading an academic article to be able to grasp what the author is presenting as their key argument. (Note: an 'argument' in academic terms does not mean a 'quarrel' - it means the presentation by the author of what they claim as valid knowledge, with that claim being supported by logical reasoning based either on theory or on evidence, or on both.) All arguments have a structure, so you need to read in such a way that you can recognise the structure.


Key point 2: by adopting an appropriate approach to reading an academic article, you can identity the structure of the author's argument both efficiently and effectively.

'Efficiently' means that you do not waste your valuable time; 'effectively' means that you are successful in understanding what you read.

Key point 3: reading an academic article is a skilful practice; that is, you get better at it the more that you do it - but only if you practise effectively.


Top class athletes, sportswomen and sportsmen may have some innate aptitude, but they get to be successful through constant training. The athletes that will compete in the next Olympics are already in training, David Beckham is constantly practising kicking free kicks and penalties, so that he maintains his ability to 'bend' or swerve the ball to go where he wants it to go whilst misleading opponents. Venus and Serena Williams practise service shots, and various return shots (after the Williams family moved to Florida, the 11-year old Venus was enrolled at the Rick Macci tennis academy spending six hours a day, six days a week, for four years, to polish the skills that would take her to the top of the game). But it is not just constant practice that is necessary: their coaches and trainers advise them on how they are doing, so that they do not practise 'bad habits'.

So it is with reading academic articles. If you read in an inappropriate manner, you are likely to reinforce 'bad habits' - and because it will be a 'bad experience', you will tend to avoid reading, and so not become better at it. Not a recipe for success.

OK, let's have a go at working through an academic article in an appropriate way. To do this we need to see how the author has structured the article. We shall use the article by Eric Flamholtz that as indicated at the beginning of this page. If you have not already done so, please download a copy and print it out now. When you have done that, click on the link below to go to part 2.



Go on to part 2