Tips for Article Summaries

I. Rationale
Throughout your college career, you will be required to do a lot of reading and a lot of writing. Sometimes, high school doesn't adequately prepare you for the types or amount of reading and writing required at the college level. This requirement is designed to help you learn to read scholarly articles and how to get and summarize the important information.

II. Selecting A Journal Article
The more care you take in selecting an article to summarize, the easier the reading and writing will be. You can find articles at the library and over the internet. First, let's address the library. You can get assistance finding appropriate journals by consulting the reference desk. The library staff can show you to the professional psychology journals. Some hints:
1. If the journal has the words "journal" and "psychology" in the title, it's probably appropriate.
2. If the journal has glossy pictures or looks like you'd get it at a magazine rack, it's probably not appropriate.
3. Psychology Today is not an appropriate journal!

Some appropriate journals include:
Journal of Abnormal Psychology
Journal of Social Psychology

American Psychologist
Journal of Clinical Psychology
Psychology in the Schools
Psychology of Women Quarterly

If you're not sure the journal is appropriate, check with me before writing the paper. Note that you are best served by getting your article several days before the paper is due. Waiting until the last minute will probably hurt you.
So how do you choose a journal and an article? Well, to start with, try to find something of interest to you. Psychology is a broad field -- you can explore topics such as child development, love, hate, education, mental illness, dreams, biological bases of behavior, criminality, etc. You can find something of interest by flipping through a journal (e.g., Journal of Abnormal Psychology for articles on mental illness and treatment), or by using the computer system in the library or over the WWW.
A second consideration when selecting the article is the length of the article. Many students try to look for the shortest possible article. This makes sense but should not be the only consideration. Writing a three-page summary of a three-page article is somewhat pointless. Also, some journals publish short book reviews or obituaries. These items rarely make for good summaries. Consider the content of the article when you look at the length. I'd suggest you (GASP!) read the article before copying it and committing yourself to it.
On this read-through, determine whether the article is really about what you expected. Get an idea of whether you understand it, at least basically. Is there a study described in the article? You can determine this by looking for sections entitled "Method," "Results," and "Discussion." If so, this may help you structure your summary. If there are three or four studies conducted in the article, it may be difficult to summarize adequately in a brief paper.
So what if you decide to use the internet? The Web has the advantage of convenience but requires more diligence to be sure you select an appropriate journal article. I recommend against using internet search programs (e.g., Lycos, Excite, Yahoo, etc.), because you will find websites more often than journal articles. Instead, access Galileo through the Library section of the VSU website ( Select the "Journals and Publications" option and set it to search for "full text articles" when you conduct your search of the specific topic that interests you. It does you little good to print out only a summary of the article; you need to read the whole article of interest, be sure to check that it comes from an appropriate professional journal, as described above.

III. Reading the Article
Students get into trouble when they try to write their summary as they read an article for the first time. It's also my opinion that simply reading and using a highlighter has limited value. Students have a tendency to highlight either nothing or 90% of the article! If you're not sure how to read and summarize an article, I recommend taking notes on a separate sheet of paper as you read. Don't copy passages from the article; instead, just jot down important points and facts in your own words so you understand your notes.
So what points are important?
In an article presenting a research study (the easiest to summarize), there are typically four main sections: an introduction, method, results, and discussion sections. In the introduction of the article (everything prior to the section titled "Method"), look especially for the hypothesis or hypotheses. These are the assumptions the study is designed to test. The earlier part of the introduction typically presents previous research leading up to the current study. Highlight terms you don't understand and try to derive the meaning from context or a dictionary. When you write your paper, explain what these terms mean in your own words.
In the method section, note who participated in the study and what they were asked to do. Were they asked to fill out surveys? Did they perform a task? Was deception used to keep the participants from knowing the true purpose of the study? Remember that these methods are supposed to test the accuracy of the hypotheses mentioned earlier. Do they seem to do so adequately?
The results section can be intimidating. It is in this section that statistical analyses are presented. These analyses are conducted to evaluate the data acquired through the methods used in the prior section. These analyses lead to the conclusions drawn in the next (discussion) section about the hypotheses that are the point of the whole study. Crystal clear, right?
Anyway, in the results section, I am not overly interested in all the specific numbers and types of statistical wizardry performed. But you should look through this section and especially note the tables and figures presented. Even without a strong knowledge of statistics, you can usually get a sense of whether the results seem to support the authors' hypotheses. If you can't, have no fear -- the authors will draw conclusions in the next section.
In the final section, the discussion section, the authors draw conclusions based on the study's results. Often they decide whether their hypotheses are supported or rejected (note: no one ever proves anything in psychology!), and opine about the implications of the results. Report the author's conclusions and maybe draw some of your own.
Some articles may present more than one study or none at all. In the former case, you need to summarize all the studies. In the latter case, try to get an idea of the purpose of the article (the writer's thesis, much like a paper you'd write for English class), and the points used to support the writer's position (or thesis). Again, be sure to define all relevant terms in your own words.

IV. Writing the Summary
To avoid problems of unintentional plagiarism, I suggest that you put the article aside when actually writing up your summary. If you've taken notes as I suggested in the earlier section, you can use those notes to write your summary. If you took care to take notes in your own words with good clear definitions of the terms (again, in your own words), then you will not inadvertently use the authors' words in writing up your summary. Yes, it's plagiarism even if it's unintentional. Some students benefit from writing an outline of the summary first. Do this if you like. I will even look at the outline and give you my opinion on it if you show it to me at least a day before the paper's due.
You also want to avoid writing the summary as you read because you will follow along with the article far too closely. Recall that this is meant to be a summary. Think of it this way, when you read a newspaper or magazine article you find interesting and later on tell a friend about it, do you typically get the article and read along with it to describe it to your friend? Likely not. You summarize the high points, with enough background info to help your friend understand what the article's about before hitting the major points you found of most relevance. Do the same thing here. Cover the introduction of the article by basically saying what the article's about. What were the authors studying and why? What did they expect to find (i.e., what were the hypotheses of the authors)? Then sketch over the basic methods. How did they measure what they were studying? What type of population (abused kids, adults with a disease, college students, rats, etc.) were they studying?
For the results section, there is no need to describe the specific statistical techniques used. You can if you want to and are knowledgeable about such things, but the average student has yet to be exposed to these issues, so don't worry about it. You should have an idea of is what the authors were comparing or measuring or correlating or whatever. That is, how did they test those hypotheses (not what specific tests, like t-tests or ANOVAs or whatever; another language, isn't it?)? For example, if they were studying whether kids or adults were better at video games, you could say the authors had kids and adults play some video games and they compared their performance on them by seeing which group got a higher average score.
Finally, for the discussion section you report whether these results supported or failed to support the authors' hypotheses. The authors may draw conclusions about why they got the results they did. They often describe limitations of the research, and suggest paths for future research. Summarize these and form your own opinions if you like.

V. Proofreading, Printing, Handing in the Summary and Dealing with Feedback
Finally, you are not done once you've typed the final word of your summary. You've written a first draft. Read over your summary. Spell check it with whatever computer program you have, but re-read it afterward to catch other spelling errors (like when you misspell "too" for "two") and grammatical mistakes. Read the summary out loud slowly. Does it make sense? If you read it to your roommate would they understand it? Try it out and see. Correct errors, making sure to save your document occasionally (never wait until it'd done to save it for the first time; that can be an awful lesson to learn first-hand!). Don't use ridiculously large font sizes or margins to make your paper look bigger. If anything, it looks smaller because of the huge font size or margins and all that blank white space on the paper. Double space the type, not triple (and not single) space.
Once you've gotten it to where you think it's perfect (naturally it's not, but we typically think it is when we hand it in), print it out. Preferably it should be printed out at least one day before it's due. Save it to the hard drive if you can and to a floppy disk or two, in case for some mysterious reason the printer does something strange as you try to print. If that's the case you have time to find another machine on campus that will allow you to print it correctly. Don't come to class and say you couldn't print it but it's done. Your job is to hand in a completed summary by that time and date; allow yourself time in case of technical difficulties.
The papers are due at class time on the date on your syllabus. Hand it in on time. Make sure your name is on the paper. Paper clip or staple the pages together ahead of time. I don't typically carry a stapler around with me anymore than you do. And don't forget to include the first page of the article you're summarizing when you hand in the paper.
When you get the paper back, look naturally at the grade, but also look through the comments on the paper. Keep the paper handy for the next article summary so you can learn from your mistakes. Remember that you can ask me when comments are unclear or you don't understand why you didn't do as well as you thought you should. And ask for advice on how to do better next time.
Reading and writing are skills we continue to develop throughout our education, and even beyond. So use this opportunity to practice these skills at the college level so that you can excel not only in your classes, but when you enter the job market and are called upon to read or write reports or even summarize something in an oral presentation. These skills generalize beyond the General Psychology course, so be diligent in trying to hone them, and they will prove useful to you.