How to Read a Paper

How to Read a Paper

by S.Keshav

David R.Cheriton School of Computer Science, University of Waterloo

The key idea of reading a paper 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.

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



Quick scan to get a bird’s eye view of the paper

  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

At the end of the first pass, you should be able to anser 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?

Incidentally, when you write a paper, you an expect most reviewers (and readers) to make only one pass over it. 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.


Read the paper with greater care, but ignore details such as proofs.

  1. Look carefully at the figures, diagrams and other illustrations in the paper. Pay special attentions to graphs. Are the axes properly labeled? Are results shown with error bars, so that conclusions are statistically significant? Common mistakes like theses 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).

The second pass should take up to an hour. 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. This level of detail is appropriate for a paper in which you are interested, but does not lie in your research specialty.


You can now choose to:

  • set the paper aside, hoping you don’t need to understand the material to be successful in your career
  • return to the paper later, perhaps after reading background material or
  • persevere and go on to the third pass


To fully understand a paper, particularly if you are reviewer, requires a third pass.

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.


  1. Make the same assumptions as the authors, re-create the work.
  2. 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.
  3. You should identify and challenge every assumption in every statement. Moreover, you should think about how you yourself would present a particular idea. This comparison of the actual presentation techniques in the paper and you can very likely add this to your repertoire of tools. During this pass, you should also jot down ideas for future work.

This pass can take about four or five hours for beginners, and about an hour for an experienced reader, and about an hour for an experienced reader. At the end of this pass, you should be able to reconstruct the entire structure of the paper from the memory, as well as be able to identify its strong and weak points. In particular, you should be able to pinpoint implicit assumptions, missing citations to relevant work, and potential issues with experimental or analytical techniques.


What Is Literature Survey In A Project Work?

A literature survey, or literature review, is a proof essay of sorts. It is a study and review of relevant literature materials in relation to a topic you have been given.If you are studying business then it would involve business books written by reputable and experienced business people. You would then, having read them, summarize what you’ve read and then go on to explain the relevance of this to your topic. The literary review is produced from secondary sources, so is merely a thesis and your take on certain facts and trends.

  • What are the key aims of the survey?

The purpose of such a survey is for you to demonstrate to your employer or tutor that you are knowledgeable in the area of expertise that they require. You are proving to them that you are well read and aware of the relevant theories and practices in your field.

Furthermore, you are expected to be analytical of what these experts or writers say and then give a critique; do you agree with what they postulate or state and if so why, with the support of other figures or facts. If you don’t then again why not.


What papers should you read? Here is how you can use the three-pass approach to help


  1. Use an academic search engine such as Google Scholar or CiteSeer 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. These are the key papers and researchers in that area. Download the key papers and set them aside. Then go to the websites of the key researchers and see where they’ve published recently.


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