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How to read a research paper

If I’m completely in the groove, with a firm topic in mind, I find it relatively easier to read papers. However when I’m attempting to get started on something, or am reading a paper which, say, I have to summarize for a course, I lose my footing. I procrastinate, I become reluctant to start.

I decided I wanted out of this shite, and hence googled for ‘How To Read A Paper’. I found this paper by someone from the University of Waterloo, and I suspect this will help out greatly.

Let me summarize it for you.

Essentially, given a research paper, you go over it in three passes.

First Pass (5-10 minutes):

  • Read the Title, Abstract and Introduction.
  • Read the section/subsection headings and ignore all else
  • Read the conclusions
  • Glance over the references and tick off those you’ve already read.
  • By the end of this pass, you should be able to answer 5 C’s about the paper:
    • Category
    • Context (What papers are related? What bases are used to analyze the problem?)
    • Correctness (Are the assumptions valid?)
    • Contributions of the paper
    • Clarity (Is the paper well-written?)

Second Pass (1 hour):

  • Read the paper more carefully, while ignoring details like proofs
  • Jot down points, make comments in the margins
  • Look carefully at all figures, especially graphs
  • Mark unread references for further reading (for background information).
  • Summarize main themes of the paper to someone else.
  • You mightn’t understand the paper completel. Jot down the points you don’t understand, and why.
  • Now, either
    • Decide not to read the paper
    • Return later to the paper after reading background material
    • Or persevere on to the third pass

Third Pass (4-5 hours):

  • You need to virtually reimplement the paper. Recreate the paper, its reasonings
  • Compare your recreation with the original
  • Think of how you would present the ideas, and compare with how the ideas are presented.
  • Here, you also jot down your ideas for future work
  • Reconstruct the entire structure of the paper from memory.
  • Now you should be able to identify the strong and weak points of the paper,  the implicit assumptions and the issues there might be with experimental or analytical techniques, as well as missing citational information.

That’s all.

Additionally, I think as a form of accountability (which I so need at the moment), I will blog every single paper I read, in accordance with the above structure.

Reading PDFs – Superpain.

I face this huge problem of late.

I have a lot of documents to be read which are in the .pdf format. Fine, it’s a universal format, yada yada.

It however is not without its pitfalls.

Firstly, .PDF is more for the visualization than for the content. By this, I mean once you write something to a .pdf file, it’s like you’ve written it to paper. It’s a format for printing out stuff more than anything else. So while there is plenty of software to create .pdf files, there are very few to actually edit them.

So why do I want to edit .pdf files? Well, most academic papers are written with 11pt or 12pt font which doesn’t make for easy reading. And I abhor the large spaces wasted in the margins. I tried Foxit PDF editor, but it turns out that it lets you correct typos, add images, delete images, and add and delete pages, but that’s about it. It won’t let you modify a file in the true sense of the word.

So convert it to Word format. I found an online PDF to DOC converter, and did so.

Job done, right?


You change the font size, it messes up the equations and tables and general layout. You decrease the size of the margins, same issue.

Oh dear god, I really wish I had the original LaTeX source that I could just modify small bits of it, or fit the same text and images into a layout better suited for reading. But trying to do that from a .pdf is like trying to get a live cow from roast beef.

It’s about time proceedings of NIPS and CHI got published in Kindle format, don’t you think? Papers are written to be read, right?

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