How to Read a Paper

This article is a summary from this instruction.

The Three-pass Approach

When reading a paper, the reviwer should read it up to three passes, instead of starting at the beginning all through to the end. Each pass has special goals and builds upon the previous pass.

The First Pass

The fist pass is a quick scan to get a bird's-eye view of the paper.

  1. Carefully read the title, abstract, and instruction.

  2. Read the section and sub-section headings, but ignore everything else.

  3. Glance at the mathematical content (if any) to determine 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 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?

P.S. 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.

The Second Pass

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 attention to graphs. Are the axes properly labeled? Are results shown with error bars, so that conclusions are statistically significant? Common mistakes like these will separate rushed, shoddy work from the trully excellent.

  2. Remember to mark relevant unread references for further reading.

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

The Third Pass

This pass requires great attention to detail. The key is to attempt to virtually re-implement the paper: making the same assumptions as the authors, re-create the work.

During this pass, you should also jot down ideas for future work.

At the end of this pass, you should be able to reconstruct the entire structure of the paper from memory, as well as be able to identify its strong and weak points.