How to read a research paper

By Charles Sutton on November 4, 2017

There’s lots of advice you can read about how to read a research paper. There’s some good advice in this paper:

S. Keshav. How to read a paper. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review, 37(3):83–84, 2007.

But there’s one tip that I can offer you to organise your reading of a paper that I can’t remember seeing elsewhere. Ask yourself:

What is the 5 minute summary that you would give to a Very Smart Friend?

I don’t understand a paper until I can explain the paper to a smart person who hasn’t read it. I need to be able to explain enough to the VSF so that she understands: what problem the paper is trying to solve, what sort of methods does it use, and how does it relate to the literature, i.e., what does it add.

But there’s two rules.

Rule 1: You have to use your own words, summarising the paper without looking at it. If you find yourself repeating sentences from the paper, the you haven’t internalised the paper’s message.

Rule 2: You cannot take anything the paper says at face value. You can assume that the authors won’t lie to you. But they might oversell a bit, and if you are a independent expert, you might not agree with everything they claim, or with how they interpret the new evidence that they have provided. Or you might be able to describe what’s going on a little bit better than they managed. What do you think that they have shown?

Another way of saying this: I know that my imaginary Very Smart Friend will jump on me if I say something inaccurate. So I don’t want to make a claim to my iVSF unless I can argue for it, based on what I have learned from the theory and experiments in the paper. If I just say something like “well, the authors claim X,” but X is controversial, or even dubious, then my iVSF will immediately want to know why they say that, do they really have evidence, and I had better have a answer.

It can also be good to try this exercise even before you are done. After reading the introduction, how well can you guess what the methods will be, even before you read them? Then read to see if you were right.

To sum up, I hope that I’ve convinced you that having an imaginary friend can help you in your research. You might not want to tell everyone on the internet that you have an imaginary friend, as I have just done, because it might not improve their respect for you. But hey, if it’s good for your research, then where are your priorities?