How to Read a Paper
August 2, 2013
David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, University of Waterloo Waterloo, ON, Canada
4. Read the conclusions
Researchers spend a great deal of time reading research papers. However, this skill is rarely taught, leading to much wasted eﬀort. This article outlines a practical and eﬃcient three-pass method for reading research papers. I also describe how to use this method to do a literature survey.
5. Glance over the references, mentally ticking oﬀ the
ones you’ve already read
Researchers must read papers for several reasons: to review them for a conference or a class, to keep current in their ﬁeld, or for a literature survey of a new ﬁeld. A typical researcher will likely spend hundreds of hours every year reading papers.
Learning to eﬃciently read a paper is a critical but rarely taught skill. Beginning graduate students, therefore, must
learn on their own using trial and error. Students waste
much eﬀort in the process and are frequently driven to frustration. For many years I have used a simple ‘three-pass’ approach to prevent me from drowning in the details of a paper before getting a bird’s-eye-view. It allows me to estimate the amount of time required to review a set of papers. Moreover, I can adjust the depth of paper evaluation depending on my
needs and how much time I have. This paper describes the
approach and its use in doing a literature survey.
THE THREE-PASS APPROACH
The key idea is that you should read the paper in up to
three passes, instead of starting at the beginning and plowing your way to the end. Each pass accomplishes speciﬁc goals and builds upon the previous pass: The f irst pass
gives you a general idea about the paper. The second pass
lets you grasp the paper’s content, but not its details. The third pass helps you understand the paper in depth.
The ﬁrst pass
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. This pass should take about ﬁve to ten minutes and consists of the following steps:
1. Carefully read the title, abstract, and introduction
2. Read the section and sub-section headings, but ignore
3. Glance at the mathematical content (if any) to determine the underlying theoretical foundations
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 paper’s main contributions? 5. Clarity: Is the paper well written?
Using this information, you may choose not to read further (and not print it out, thus saving trees). This could be because the paper doesn’t interest you, or you don’t know enough about the area to understand the paper, or that the
authors make invalid assumptions. The ﬁrst pass is adequate for papers that aren’t in your research area, but may someday prove relevant.
Incidentally, when you write a paper, you can expect most
reviewers (and readers) to make only one pass over it. Take
care to choose coherent section and sub-section titles and
to write concise and comprehensive abstracts. If a reviewer
cannot understand the gist after one pass, the paper will
likely be rejected; if a reader cannot understand the highlights of the paper after ﬁve minutes, the paper will likely never be read. For these reasons, a ‘graphical abstract’ that summarizes a paper with a single well-chosen ﬁgure is an excellent idea and can be increasingly found in scientiﬁc journals.
The second pass
In the second pass, read the paper with greater care, but
ignore details such as proofs. It helps...
References:  I.H. McLean, “Literature Review Matrix,”
 S. Peyton Jones, “Research Skills,”
 T. Roscoe, “Writing Reviews for Systems Conferences,”
 H. Schulzrinne, “Writing Technical Articles,”
 G.M. Whitesides, “Whitesides’ Group: Writing a Paper,”
http://www.ee.ucr.edu/∼rlake/Whitesides writing res paper.pdf
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