How to Read Research Paper


Simple Steps

  1. First steps: skip
    1. Read title and abstract
    2. Read introduction
    3. Read the methodology and or read conclusions
    4. If the content of the 3 previous steps makes sense, and the paper is relevant
  2. Second steps: going into understanding
    1. Read the body of the paper
  3. Third steps: going into deeper understanding
    1. Deeply analyze the paper
  4. Four steps: writing
    1. Archive it and write bibliographic record
    2. Write your comment or review.

Three-Pass Approach

  • The first pass gives you a general idea about the paper.
  • The second pass lets you grasp the papers content, but not its details.
  • The third pass helps you understand the paper in depth.

First Pass (5-10 minutes)

What to do:
The first pass is a quick scan to get a bird's-eye view of the paper. You can also decide whether you need to do any more passes.

  1. Carefully read the title, abstract, and introduction
  2. Read the section and sub-section headings, but ignore everything else
  3. Read the conclusions
  4. Glance over the references, mentally ticking off the ones you've already read

Goal of the pass:
At the end of the first pass, you should be able to answer the five Cs:

  1. Category: What type of paper is this? A measurement paper? An analysis of an existing system? A description of a research prototype?
  2. Context: Which other papers is it related to? Which theoretical bases were used to analyze the problem?
  3. Correctness: Do the assumptions appear to be valid?
  4. Contributions: What are the papers main contributions?
  5. Clarity: Is the paper well written?

Next steps:
Using this information, you may choose not to read further. This could be because the paper (a) doesn't interest you, or (b) you don't know enough about the area to understand the paper, or (c) that the authors make invalid assumptions.

The second pass (1 hour)

What to do:
In the second pass, read the paper with greater care, but ignore details such as proofs. Write the key points, or to make comments, as you read.

  1. Look carefully at the figures, diagrams and other illustrations in the paper. Pay special attention to graphs. Are the axes properly labeled? Are results shown with error bars, so that conclusions are statistically significant? Common mistakes like these will separate rushed, shoddy work from the truly excellent.
  2. Remember to mark relevant unread references for further reading (this is a good way to learn more about the background of the paper).

Goal of the pass:
After this pass, you should be able to grasp the content of the paper. You should be able to summarize the main thrust of the paper, with supporting evidence, to someone else. Sometimes you wont understand a paper even at the end of the second pass, because (a) the subject matter is new to you, (b) or the authors may use a proof or experimental technique that you don't understand (c) the paper may be poorly written, (c) Or it could just you're tired.

Next steps:
You can now choose to: (a) set the paper aside, hoping you don't need to understand the material, (b) return to the paper later, perhaps after reading background material or (c) persevere and go on to the third pass.

The third pass (1-5 hours)

What to do:
To fully understand a paper, particularly if you are reviewer. The key to the third pass is to attempt to virtually re-implement the paper: that is, making the same assumptions as the authors, re-create the work. By comparing this re-creation with the actual paper, you can easily identify not only a paper's innovations, but also its hidden failings and assumptions.

  1. You should identify and challenge every assumption in every statement.
  2. You should think about how you yourself would present a particular idea.
  3. You should also jot down ideas for future work.

Goal of the pass:
At the end of this pass, you should (a) be able to reconstruct the entire structure of the paper from memory, as well as (b) be able to identify its strong and weak points. In particular, you should (c) be able to pinpoint implicit assumptions, missing citations to relevant work, and potential issues with experimental or analytical techniques.

Three Passes Diagram

Writing the Review

  • After the second pass:
    • Summarize the paper in one or two sentences
  • After the third pass:
    • A deeper, more extensive outline of the main points of the paper, including for example assumptions made, arguments presented, data analyzed, and conclusions drawn.
    • Any limitations or extensions you see for the ideas in the paper.
    • Your opinion of the paper; primarily, the quality of the ideas and its potential impact.

How to write the review

  • Low-level notes
    • restate unclear points in your own words
    • fill in missing details (assumptions, algebraic steps, proofs, pseudocode)
    • annotate mathematical objects with their types
    • come up with examples that illustrate the author's ideas, and examples that would be problematic for the author
    • draw connections to other methods and problems you know about
    • ask questions about things that aren't stated or that don't make sense
    • challenge the paper's claims or methods
    • dream up follow up work that you (or someone) should do
  • High-level notes
    • Distill the paper down: summarize the things that interested you, contrast with other papers, and record your own questions and ideas for future work.
    • At a minimum, you should re-explain the ideas in your own words: produce some text that is aimed at your future self. You should be able to reread this later and quickly reconstruct your understanding of the paper.