Most of the contents in this document were excerpted from How to read a Paper. This article outlines a practical and efficient three-pass method for reading research papers, and describes how to use this method to do a literature survey.

Three-Pass approach

Read the paper in up to three passes.

  1. The first pass gives you a general idea about the paper.
  2. The second pass lets you grasp the paper's content, but not its details.
  3. The third pass helps you understand the paper in depth.

The first pass

Takes 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 everything else.
  3. Glance at the mathematical content (if any) to determining the underlying theoretical foundations.
  4. Read the conclusions.
  5. Glance over the references, mentally ticking off the ones you've already read.

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

  1. Category: What the type of paper is this?
  2. Context: Which other papers is 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?

Enlightenment for writing a paper: Take care to choose coherent section and sub-section titles and to write concise and comprehensive abstracts.

The second pass

Read the paper with greater care, but ignore details such as proofs. Jot down the key points, or to make comments in the margins as you read(Note down terms you didn't understand, or questions you may want to ask the author).

  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?
  2. Remember to mark relevant unread references for further reading(Learn more about the background of the paper).

After this pass, you should be able to summarize the main thrust of the paper, with supporting evidence, to someone else.

The third pass

Attempt to virtually re-implement the paper: making the same assumptions as the authors, re-creation with the actual paper. Identify not only a paper's innovations, but also its hidden failings and assumptions. Pinpoint implicit assumptions, missing citations to relevant work, and potential issues with experimental or analytical techniques.

Add the proof and presentation techniques in the paper to your tools list and jot down ideas for future work.

Doing a literature survey

Read tens of papers.

  1. use an academic search engine and some well-chosen keywords to find three to five recent papers in the area. Do one pass on each paper to get a sense of the work, then read their related work sections.
  2. Find shared citations and repeated author names in the bibliography. Then go to the websites of the key researchers and see where they've published recently.
  3. Go to the website for these top conferences and look through their recent proceedings. Then make two passes through these papers.

Further reading