Introduction to Reading the Primary Literature

Anne E. Egger, Stanford University
Author Profile


Photo of journals
This is a reading and homework assignment to introduce students to reading, understanding, and using the primary literature. In the reading, they are introduced to the idea that a scientific journal article is not usually read straight through the first time. The reading also describes why scientific journal articles have the form that they do, including how that form developed and why it continues. Students are then asked to critically read a journal article and answer a series of questions.

Learning Goals

The content students learn from this activity will vary according to the journal article used in the exercise. Any content goal is appropriate.

The goals related to the process of science are more specific. After completing this homework assignment, students should be able to:
  • read a scientific journal article efficiently
  • describe the format of a scientific journal article
  • describe why the format of the scientific journal article is somewhat standardized, even across many disciplines

Context for Use

This activity can be used at any level, in any institution.

Description and Teaching Materials

This is a reading and homework assignment, which can be followed by discussion. The first component of the assignment iinvolves reading this module at the Visionlearning site called Understanding Scientific Journals and Journal Articles. The second part of the homework assignment involves asking students to apply what they've learned to a relevant journal article, chosen by the instructor. Here are some options for journal articles and questions to go with the first reading:

Teaching Notes and Tips

The reading explicitly describes the importance and role of the scientific journal article. It is up to the instructor to draw the appropriate disciplinary or topical connection.


The immediate assessment for this activity involves asking students to answer questions about a journal article and seeing if they are able to apply the skills they should have learned through the reading. When I have used this in classes, however, the long-term assessment comes later, because they have to incorporate the primary literature into a paper or presentation later in the course.

References and Resources