30 Jan 2021

[1] How to Read a Paper

S. Keshav. 2007. How to read a paper. SIGCOMM Comput. Commun. Rev. 37, 3 (July 2007), 83–84. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/1273445.1273458

How to Read a Paper

The main idea is breaking the reading of a particular paper down into three passes. Each pass through the paper should include more of the paper’s specific details and give the reader and overall clearer understanding of the paper’s message, author’s intentions, and the implications moving forward.

1st pass

First, you want to gain a general idea about the paper. Then, quickly scan to get a birds-eye view of the paper. This should take approximately 5-10 minutes.


1. Read the title, abstract, and introduction
2. Read section and subsection headings
3. Read the conclusions
4. Glance over the references, tick off the one’s you’ve read

Answer these questions

  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?

2nd pass

Here, you want to grasp the paper’s content, but not its details. Read with greater care, but ignore the in-depth details. Jot down the key points or make comments in the margins. This pass should take approximately 60 minutes. Finish this section by summarizing the main thrust of the paper, with supporting evidence, to someone else (imaginary or in-person)


1. Look carefully at figures, diagrams, graphs, and illustrations
2. Mark relevant unread references

3rd pass

This pass helps you understand the paper in depth. The goal is to virtually re-implement the paper. The reader should challenge every assumption in every statement and consider how you yourself would present the particular idea. It is helpful to jot down ideas for future work. This pass should take 4-5 hours for beginners and 60 minutes for experienced readers


  • Be able to reconstruct the entire structure of the paper from memory
  • Identify the paper’s strong and weak points
  • Pinpoint missing citations to relevant work, implicit assumptions, and potential issues with experimental or analytical techniques

Doing a literature survey

  1. Use Google Scholar or CiteSeer with well-chosen keywords to find 3-5 recent papers in the area
    • Do 1 pass on each paper
  2. Find shared citations and repeated author names in the bibliography
    • Download key papers and set them aside
    • Go to the websites of the key researchers and see where they’ve published recently
  3. Go to the websites of these top conferences and look thru recent proceedings
    • Identify recent high-quality related work
  4. Go thru all collected papers and create the first version of your survey
    • Make second passes through these papers
    • Look for citations of key papers that you missed before

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