Reading and critiquing a research article

Nurses use research to answer questions about their practice, solve problems, improve the quality of patient care, generate new research questions, and shape health policy. Nurses who confront questions about practice and policy need strong, high-quality, evidence-based research. Research articles in peer-reviewed journals typically undergo a rigorous review process to ensure scholarly standards are met. Nonetheless, standards vary among reviewers and journals. This article presents a framework nurses can use to read and critique a research article.

When deciding to read an article, determine if it’s about a question you have an interest in or if it can be of use in your practice. You may want to have a research article available to read and critique as you consider the following questions.

Does the title accurately describe the article?

A good title will pique your interest but typically you will not know until you are done reading the article if the title is an accurate description. An informative title conveys the article’s key concepts, methods, and variables.

Is the abstract representative of the article?

The abstract provides a brief overview of the purpose of the study, research questions, methods, results, and conclusions. This helps you decide if it’s an article you want to read. Some people use the abstract to discuss a study and never read further. This is unwise because the abstract is just a preview of the article and may be misleading.

Does the introduction make the purpose of the article clear?

A good introduction provides the basis for the article. It includes a statement of the problem, a rationale for the study, and the research questions. When a hypothesis is being tested, it should be clearly stated and include the expected results.

Is a theoretical framework described?

When a theoretical framework is used, it should inform the study and provide a rationale. The concepts of the theoretical framework should relate to the topic and serve as a basis for interpreting the results. Some research doesn’t use a theoretical framework, such as health services research, which examines issues such as access to care, healthcare costs, and healthcare delivery. Clinical research such as comparing the effectiveness of two drugs won’t include a theoretical framework.


Is the literature review relevant to the study and comprehensive? Does it include recent research?

The literature review provides a context for the study. It establishes what is, and is not known about the research problem. Publication dates are important but there are caveats. Most literature reviews include articles published within the last 3 to 5 years. It can take more than a year for an article to be reviewed, revised, accepted, and published, causing some references to seem outdated.

Literature reviews may include older studies to demonstrate important changes in knowledge over time. In an area of study where little or no research has been conducted, there may be only a few relevant articles that are a decade or more old. In an emerging area of study there may be no published research, in which case related research should be referenced. If you are familiar with the area of research, review the references to determine if well-known and highly regarded studies are included.

Does the methods section explain how a research question was addressed?

The methods section provides enough information to allow the study to be replicated. Components of this section indicate if the design is appropriate to answer the research question(s).

  • Did the researcher select the correct sample to answer the research questions and was the size sufficient to obtain valid results?
  • If a data collection instrument was used, how was it created and validated?
  • If any materials were used, such as written guides or equipment, were they described?
  • How were data collected?
  • Was reliability and validity accounted for?
  • Were the procedures listed in a step-by-step manner?

Independent and dependent variables should be described and terms defined. For example, if patient falls in the hospital are considered the dependent variable, or outcome, what are the independent variables, or factors, being investigated that may influence the rate at which patient falls occur? In this example, independent variables might include nurse staffing, registered nurse composition (such as education and certification), and hospital Magnet&#174 status.

Is the analytical approach consistent with the study questions and research design?

The analytical approach relates to the study questions and research design. A quantitative study may use descriptive statistics to summarize the data and other tests, such as chi squares, t-tests, or regression analysis, to compare or evaluate the data. A qualitative study may use such approaches as coding, content analysis, or grounded theory analysis. A reader who is unfamiliar with the analytical approach may choose to rely on the expertise of the journal’s peer reviewers who assessed whether the analytical approach was correct.

Are the results presented clearly in the text and in tables and figures?

Results should be clearly summarized in the text, tables, and figures. Tables and figures are only a partial representation of the results and critical information may be only in the text. In a quantitative study, the significance of the statistical tests is important. The presentation of qualitative results should avoid interpretation, which is reserved for the discussion.

Are the limitations presented and their implications discussed?

It is essential that the limitations of the study be presented. These are the factors that explain why the results may need to be carefully interpreted, may only be generalized to certain situations, or may provide less robust results than anticipated. Examples of limitations include a low response rate to a survey, not being able to establish causality when a cross-sectional study design was used, and having key stakeholders refuse to be interviewed.

Does the discussion explain the results in relation to the theoretical framework, research questions, and significance of the study?

The discussion serves as an opportunity to explain the results in respect to the research questions and the theoretical framework. Authors use the discussion to interpret the results and explain the meaning and significance of the study. It’s also important to distinguish the study from others that preceded it and provide recommendations for future research.

Depending on the research, it may be equally important for the investigators to present the clinical and/or practical significance of the results. Relevant policy recommendations are also important. Evaluate if the recommendations are supported by the data or seem to be more of an opinion. A succinct conclusion typically completes the article.

Once you’re done reading the article, how do you decide if the research is something you want to use?

Determine the scientific merit of the study by evaluating the level and quality of the evidence. There are many scales to use, several of which can be found in the Research Toolkit on the American Nurses Association’s website http://www.nursingworld.org/research-toolkit.aspx. Consider what you learned and decide if the study is relevant to your practice or answered your question as well as whether you can implement the findings.

A new skill

A systematic approach to reading and critiquing a research article serves as a foundation for translating evidence into practice and policy. Every nurse can acquire this skill.

Louise Kaplan is director of the nursing program at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. At the end of this article is a checklist for evaluating an article.

Selected references

Hudson-Barr D. How to read a research article. J Spec Pediatr Nurs. 2004;9(2):70-2.

King’s College D. Leonard Corgan Library. Reading a research article. http://www.lib.jmu.edu/ilworkshop08/materials/studyguide3.pdf. Accessed September 5, 2012.

Oliver D, Mahon SM. Reading a research article part I: Types of variables. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2005;9(1):110-12.

Oliver D, Mahon SM. Reading a research article part II: Parametric and nonparametric statistics. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2005;9(2):238-240.

Oliver D, Mahon SM. Reading a research article part III: The data collection instrument. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2006;10(3):423-26.

Rumrill P, Fitzgerald S, Ware, M. Guidelines for evaluating research articles. Work. 2000;14(3):257-63.

Checklist for reading and critiquing a research article

1. Critiquing the research article

a. Title describes the article

b. Abstract summarizes the article

c. Introduction makes the purpose clear

d. Problem is properly introduced

e. Purpose of the study is explained

f. Research question(s) are clearly presented

g. Theoretical framework informs the research

h. Literature review is relevant, comprehensive, and includes recent research

i. Methods section details how the research questions were addressed or hypotheses were tested

j. Analysis is consistent with the study questions and research design

k. Results are clearly presented and statistics clearly explained

l. Discussion explains the results in relation to the theoretical framework, research questions, and significance to nursing

m. Limitations are presented and their implications discussed

n. Conclusion includes recommendations for nursing practice, future research, and policymakers

2. Determine the level and quality of the evidence using a scale (several can be found in ANA’s Research Toolkit http://www.nursingworld.org/Research-Toolkit/Appraising-the-Evidence ).

3. Decide if the study is applicable to your practice.

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12 thoughts on “Reading and critiquing a research article”

  1. Lynn O'Donnell says:

    Great information and I will use this article for future reference.

  2. Jeanne DeVito says:

    This checklist and explanation for a literature review and/or reading and critiquing a research article was very helpful. As I only have 2 more classes to get my degree, I wish I knew this info 2 semesters ago! I will also pass this along to coworkers that will be going back to school in the near future.

  3. crolyn martinez says:

    Great article, I enjoyed the information. Thank You for this resource.
    Carolyn Martinez

  4. Shelley Cav says:

    Fantastic guide to the interpretation of clinical trials. Found this so helpful!

  5. Maria George says:

    Great information and article. Thank you for the information.

  6. Jessica Waghmare says:

    well explained. its sometimes hard for P.G students to understand the concept but these guidelines are helpful to learn for novice.

  7. enugu says:

    This is great,am looking for guilgline on how to do research critique and this is just the solution.Thnks weldone

  8. Anonymous says:

    Unsure how to appropriately critique an article, thank you for your infomation

  9. Jackie McGhee says:

    I am currently taking a Health Service Research course and was not sure how to sturcture my assignment. Thanks for posting this article!

  10. belen says:

    very informative…very helpful to students doing research work.

  11. gail gall says:

    Great timing; have just been asked to review and article and you provide the guide! Will share with colleagues.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I will be passing this article on to a friend who is taking a nursing research class. This article is a great reference for nursing students.

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