15 How to Read Other Secondary Sources

Magazines and Wikipedia are easier. Why bother with long articles?

The answer to this question involves understanding a key feature of academia: anything academics publish must adhere to shared standards of scholarship and we make sure that happens through a process known as peer-reviewwhich is sort of like grading by other professors. You may have read history books written by popular writers, including journalists or others who love the past but have not received formal training. While many of those books have a merit, in this course we will concentrate on history written by academic historians. Before a scholar can publish a journal article or monograph with an academic press (or trade presses with similar standards), they submit a draft for review. In this process, the editor of the press or journal contacts other historians who specialize in the same field and asks them to read the essay to make sure that the analysis follows the standards for scholarship and if it makes a worthwhile contribution to the field. Academic presses are committed to these standards, and cannot publish material they know violates it, even if they thought the subject was interesting or profitable.

Rather than wondering simply “Will people buy this book?” academic presses ask a different set of questions: Is the argument clear and supported by verifiable facts in evidence? Are the sources appropriate and sufficient to support the author’s analysis? Has the author avoided faults in logic and plagiarizing other scholars? Does the essay address (and effectively counter) any interpretations that conflict with the one presented? If the peer reviewers believe the essay does not meet these standards, it is returned to the author for revision. Sometimes even if peer reviewers recommend publication, they will ask for improvements. One important result of the peer review process is better written, better explained, better supported essays.

Better written does not necessarily mean more accepted of course, because historians will always find something to debate. But the common ground created by the peer review process means that those debates usually result in some come consensus about what we know. Though contemporary historians generally acknowledge that knowledge about the past is partial and that individual perspectives may bias interpretations, most do believe that we can approach the “truth.” Above all, scholarship is not opinion. The peer-review process ensures that only the results of fact-based inquiry get published. Historians’ respect for fact-based, logical arguments that do not leave out key pieces of evidence mean that they can trust the premise and argue about the interpretation itself—whether other sources might yield a different conclusion, or if a revised assessment of an individual’s actions is as well-supported as the previous one. The ensuing debates—and historians do love to debate—are key to the development of what we agree upon as historical facts and likely explanations for how and why events happened as they did.

As new research is presented in the form of conference presentations, essays, and books, historians inevitably argue about differing interpretations, leading to a fine-tuning of our understanding of the past. Over time a synthesis develops, as well-supported, convincing explanations emerge, and historians agree on about the causes and impact of a particular event (until the next, more convincing interpretations gets published!). These syntheses will become your textbooks.  While your instructor might have a disagreement here or there about something in a text, they generally agree with most of the information and interpretation found therein.

Scholarly articles

Scholarly articles follow the same rules as academic monographs. They appear in a number of places, including edited volumes, published conference proceedings, digital databases, and in academic journals. We will focus on reading scholarly articles from academic journals because they are the most prominent and will be necessary in your own research. However,  the process is the same whether you are reading a chapter in an edited volume like Divided Houses or an essay in the Journal of American History.

Scholarly Articles


What are academic journals?

Academic Journals are essential to the historical process and discipline. Published regularly by academic presses and usually sponsored by different historical societies such as the American Historical Association or the Society of Military History, these quarterly publications—can be governed by broad categories (all of modern human history for the American Historical Review) or quite specific ones (as in the Journal of Civil War Medicine). Journals normally focus on three different types of publications: single author articles, book reviews, and historiographical essays.

At the heart of any academic journal are scholarly articles, essays written by professional historians or graduate students of history, usually about 25 to 40 pages in length, and focused on a specific research question. They must undergo the peer review process (see above), and the time between writing an article and seeing it in print can take years.

Book reviews deliver perhaps the most important purpose of academic journals: keeping the historical population up to date on new scholarship. Written by a diverse array of historians from graduate students to tenured professors, book reviews are essential short summaries and critiques of historical monographs. With the sheer volume of books published each year it is impossible for each historian to be remain caught up in their field. Book reviews offer a glimpse of each book and can inform the reader if they will indeed need to obtain a copy and read it for themselves.

Finally, many journals solicit historiographic essays from historians. These overarching pieces attempt to look at a field or common research question—topics might be as broad as the American Way of War or the history of childhood in modern Europe, or as specific as the rise and fall of the AFL-CIO labor union in post-World War II America or causes of the Salem Witch Trials. The author locates as many publications on their subject as possible, including both books and scholarly articles; if the topic has been visited by an earlier historian, the new essayist will likely limit their review to only those works published since the last publication. With essays and books compiled, the author reads for common arguments, patterns in use of primary sources, the extent of agreement or controversy on issues of periodization, causation, or impact, and more. A good historiographical essay should attempt to do nothing less than assess the status of the scholarship for a historical subject. These essays ask questions such as: What are the most important publications? What does the field currently care about? What are the major disagreements? Most importantly these articles look to where the field is headed by evaluating where it has been.

All in all, academic journals form a critical piece of the entire historical discipline and keep it moving forward, while presenting continuous opportunities to historians to present their work, hone their analytical writing skills, and engage with one another. For you, however, academic journals can provide some important shortcuts for your research process. You should use the footnotes of scholarly or historiographical essays (see footnote mining under locating sources) to find possible primary and secondary sources; skim book reviews to see what books are worth taking a closer look at or to develop your basic knowledge of a topic (along with encyclopedia articles). Above all, don’t neglect using scholarly journals at you begin your research.

Finding journal articles on your topic

To find the right journal article, use your library. You can find out more about this under the chapter “Locating Sources” but here’s a short overview:

Your library databases are the best place to start. The most common database is JSTOR, which is a search engine for academic journals found at most university libraries. On JSTOR there are over 300 history journals, ranging from “Air Power History” to “Victorian Studies,” from “Aboriginal History” to the “Journal of the History of Medicine” – and every topic beyond and between. Quick Note: if you Google for this info, you’re likely to hit a pay wall when trying to access JSTOR. If you start via the Library’s catalog that won’t happen.

Explore the advanced search and try several different key words. You may select a specific journal or limit publication dates. For most of these journals, JSTOR has access to every publication from the first publication (sometimes dating back to the 1800s) up until 2016. (For the very recent past, you may need to go to a database like Academic Search Complete or the web site for individual journals.) Sometimes another source might give you a lead on an historian who specializes in your topic or subject headings that work well. Be persistent



Journal articles can be tough to read. How do I go about it?

It’s true that journal articles are often written with a specialized audience in mind. But with a little effort, you can get the gist of the argument. Basically, you will need to adapt the recommendations on how to read a monograph (for a reminder, see the “How to Read a Historical Monograph” chapter) to this shorter form.

Follow these steps:

find out about the author(s)

  • See what you can find out about the author. Put his/her name into Academic Search Complete, JSTOR, and Gale Virtual Public Library*; even see what shows up in Wikipedia or Google Scholar. Make a few notes about what the author’s expertise seems to be.

[Note for UTA students: Remember to find ACS, JSTOR, and GVPL by going to library.uta.edu, clicking on Databases A-Z, then A for ACS, J for JSTOR and G for GVPL, the compendium of scholarly encyclopedia. You will need to login with UTA ID—but once you do, it’s all free to you as a student.]

conduct a quick read-through:

  • Read the abstract (if any). Then Read the intro and conclusion closely.
  • Read the information under any images, figures, charts, or maps.
  • For the first reading, skim. This means reading the first sentence of each paragraph.
  • Before you dive into the serious reading, take stock of what you know about the author’s intent. Based on what you’ve read in the abstract, notes, and skimming, compose a few sentences (no more than three) indicating what you think the author’s main argument or thesis is. Do NOT simply copy the abstract, but rather put it into your own words.

read closely but avoid detailed note-taking:

  • Now, you can read the article, starting again at the introduction. Stop occasionally to check your understanding of the article in steps 1-3. Was it correct? If it’s not, return to summary and revise it accordingly.
  • Never try to write down every fact or create a detailed outline of an article on a topic new to you. Instead, take notes on a few key questions:
    • What previous arguments about history are they responding to?
    • What’s the time frame? Is the author making an argument about how we see different periods?
    • What sort of primary sources is the author referring to most often? (Look at the footnotes to see patterns if there isn’t a paragraph explaining the primary sources in the article itself.
    • Is the author trying to make a case about an individual that earlier historians have improperly ignored? Or perhaps a different cause or impact of the event that we once thought we knew?


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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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