How to Read Papers

A paper on how to read papers.

Reading papers is an untaught skill.

This paper introduces a "three-pass approach"

1. The First Pass: What's the idea? (5-10 mins)

This quick scan helps to get a general understanding of the paper and decide if further reading is necessary. It involves:

  • Carefully read the title, abstract, and introduction.
  • Read section and sub-section headings, ignore everything else
  • Read the conclusions
  • Glance over the references

By the end of this pass, you should identify 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 paper’s main contributions?
  5. Clarity: Is the paper well written?

2. The Second Pass: Grasps the content (~ 1 hour)

In this stage, read the paper more carefully but skip over details like proofs:

  • Examine figures and diagrams closely. Pay special attentions to graphs
  • Take notes and mark important references for future reading.

By the end of this pass, you should be able to:

  • grasp content of paper
  • summarize main thrust of paper, with supporting evidence, to someone else

If you don't understand it, either it is a new subject matter, an experimental technique, or it's poorly written

3. The Third Pass: Go in depth, re-implement (4-5 hours)

This is an in-depth reading where you try to understand the paper at a deeper level and identifying its strengths and weaknesses.

  • implement the paper: make the same assumptions as the authors and re-create the work
  • identify and challenge every assumption in every statement
  • compare yours and the actual paper, identify the paper's innovation and hidden failings and assumptions.
  • jot down ideas for future work

By the end of this pass, you should be able to:

  • reconstruct the entire structure of paper from memory
  • Identify its strong and weak points
  • pinpoint implicit assumptions, missing citations to relevant work, and potential issues with the techniques

Guidelines for reading

  • Read critically
    • don't assume authors are always correct, ask appropriate questions
  • Read creatively
    • what are the good ideas in this paper?
    • Do the ideas have other applications or extensions?
    • are there possible improvements
    • what would be the next thing you would do?
    • Do one pass on each paper
  • Make notes as you read

Doing a Literature Survey

When conducting a literature survey, the three-pass approach is valuable:

  1. Starting Point: Use academic search engines with specific keywords to find initial papers and read their related work sections.
  2. Identifying Key Papers: Look for shared citations and author names in these papers to find key research in the area.
  3. Exploring Conference Proceedings: Visit top conference websites in the field and browse their proceedings for recent high-quality work.

Through this method, you can efficiently conduct a literature survey by identifying and understanding the most relevant papers in a field.