How to read an academic article - part 3


OK, time to start reading the article in an appropriate way.

Stage 1. Look at the title.

This often gives key information to indicate what the article discusses.
"Accounting, Budgeting and Control Systems in their Organizational Context: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives".
The first part of the title tells us that the article examines some key issues (accounting, budgeting and control systems) in their organizational context. The second part tells us that these are considered from both theoretical and empirical perspectives (points of view). Aha! So we can assume that the article will have:
a) a theoretical discussion of issues to do with accounting, budgeting and control systems;
b) a presentation and discussion of empirical research on these issues, ie research within some particular organisations.

As the title puts the word 'theoretical' before the word 'empirical', it seems safe to assume that this indicates the ordering of material in the article. So we can produce, in our mind or drawn on paper (or computer), a model or diagram of how the article is constructed:



theoretical discussion

followed by

presentation and discussion of empirical findings


  Of course, an article needs to have an introduction and a conclusion. That's standard writing practice. In addition, academic articles normally have an abstract (short summary) at the beginning and a listing of the literature cited in the text (called 'bibliography', or 'references'). Together with the title and author's details, we have what we might call the 'skeleton' of the article:  


Author details
Theoretical discussion
Presentation and discussion of empirical findings



So far, we have just read the title. But we can now identify the above elements in the article.

Do so now with your own copy, which you should have downloaded and printed. (NB do not make marks on any texts you are reading that you do not own. I recommend you mark photocopies you have made of articles from journals, but do not make mark on the originals.)

Stage 2: Read the Abstract

OK, so far we've read the title and identified the basic structure of the article. Next, as there is an abstract (that is, a short summary), let's read that. The first sentence says:
"This paper examines the relationship between accounting, budgeting and control in its actual organizational context from a theoretical as well as an empirical perspective."
Yes, well we knew that from the title. But this first sentence of the abstract reminds us, reinforces the message that this is what the article does.

Let's read the second sentence:
"It argues that the process of exercising control in an organization is significantly more complex than conventional managerial accounting theory suggests."

Look at the first three words of that second sentence:
"It argues that ..."
Academic journals will only publish articles that, in some way, present what the authors claim to be new ideas, research findings etc, or new ways of thinking about issues that are of current concern. The words "it argues that" indicate the start of a summary of what the author is claiming. So what does this author claim? Read the rest of the sentence:
"the process of exercising control in an organization is significantly more complex than conventional managerial accounting theory suggests".

There we have it, in a nutshell.

Something is more complex than some theory suggests.
What is the something that is more complex?: the process of exercising control in an organization.
What is the theory?: conventional managerial accounting theory.

Notice that we have two parts to the sentence: more...than. Where you see a two-part sentence such as this, it is often useful to reverse the order and make appropriate changes to keep the meaning.

conventional managerial accounting theory is too simple
[take the opposite of 'more complex' to keep the same meaning]

to explain how [ie the process of ] control is carried out [ie exercised] in an organization.

So we know that the article will be presenting some discussion of conventional managerial accounting theory and argue that it is too simple to explain how control in organizations is actually carried out.

Now read the next sentence:

"It also argues that budgeting and even an accounting system cannot be viewed as a control system per se; rather, they must be seen as a part of a carefully designed total system of organizational control."

OK, we get the 'it argues that ...' bit again, with just the word 'also' added in. So what does the article argue?
Here again we get a two-part sentence. The parts are separated by a semi-colon ( ; ), and the second part starts with the word 'rather'.
Look at the first part. It refers to
"budgeting and even an accounting system"
stating that these
"cannot be viewed as" something.
What can't they be viewed as? They can't be viewed as "a control system per se" ['per se' is one of the Latin phrases that academics tend to use; it means 'in itself' or 'by itself']

So that's one part. Well if they can't be viewed [seen, regarded, treated] in that way, then how should we view them?:
"as a part of a carefully designed total system of organizational control."
The phrase 'part of' refers back to the "budgeting and even an accounting system" that are referred to in the first part of the sentence.
Now read again the final seven words, missing out the word 'of'. Note the rhythm:
carefully designed
total system
organizational control

Almost a poem. Dum de de dum, dum de de dum, dum de de dum. This is writing of a very high order, as we might expect for this highly-rated academic journal.

The central pair, 'total system', is the central element. A total system, ie not merely a set of parts.
A total system of (or for) what? Of organizational control: not just of part of the organization's activities, but of the organization as whole.
That total system (of organizational control) must be 'carefully designed': not put together casually, without much thought or planning. No, it has to be designed carefully.

OK, so far we've just read the title and three sentences of the abstract. But we already have a good idea of the likely structure of the article, the main parts being a theoretical discussion, which is followed by presentation and discussion of empirical studies. Also, we know the main argument:

" conventional managerial accounting theory has too simple a view of the way that control is carried out in organizations"

" budgeting and accounting systems cannot be regarded as a control system in itself"

" they should be viewed as just part of a total system of organisational control that must be carefully designed"


Let's read on.

Go to part 4