How to Efficiently Read Scientific Papers?

A guide on how to find, read, and make the most of scientific papers.

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Image by Georgi Dyulgerov from Pixabay

When it comes to scientific research, writing is the way to document one’s accomplishments, while reading is how to memorialize others’. As a university student, you regularly need to read tons of scientific papers, which, although not the most enjoyable task, it is an essential part of conducting research.

Learning how to find, approach, and read scientific papers efficiently can save you valuable as you move forward on your research journey. I will be honest with you; reading my first paper was a challenge. I didn’t know how to start, what paper to read, and how to use the information in it. However, during my years as a graduate student, I learned some techniques that enabled me to find and read scientific papers efficiently.

Before we get into how to read scientific papers, we first need to know where to find them? There are many resources you could look up, perhaps the most known one is Google Scholar, a general, all disciplines, search engine. Another general source is ScienceDirect. Those two will lead you to almost all scientific papers, books, or articles you may ever need. However, if you want to search for a specific discipline, you can choose one of the following academic search engines:

  1. IEEE Xplore for papers on Electronics, Electrical engineering, Computer science.
  2. Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) for papers on Education.
  3. arXiv for Physics, Mathematics, Computer science, Quantitative biology, Quantitative finance, and statistics.
  4. Public Library of Science (PLOS) for Life sciences topics.

I wrote a detailed article on how to find the publications you want using Google Scholar, I recommend you check that one out and once you’ve found an article, get back here and continue reading 😉

Now that you found a paper to read, let me ask you this, why are you reading this particular paper?

Chances are, you’re reading it for one of these reasons:

  1. To gather general information, or doing a literature review looking for perspective research topics or areas?
  2. To present it or explain it to other people, inside or outside the field.
  3. To use the ideas presented in it in your own work or extend upon the work in the paper.
  4. Or, you don’t have a specific reason for reading it, you’re reading it out of pure curiosity.

Based on your reason, the reading method to use will differ. If you just want to get the general idea of the paper, then skimming it would be enough. However, if you plan to explain its content to others or make some slides about it, then you will need to go a little bit deeper into the details. But, if you intend to use the paper’s content for your work, then you need to fully understand the details of the paper.

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When you skim a paper, you gather general information about it, such as the title, the authors' names and where they work, and when it was published. After that, read the abstract to know the idea the paper is proposing and move on to the discussion and conclusion sections to know the summary of their approach and results.
Typically, skimming a paper takes around 10~15 mins.

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After you skimmed the paper, gathered the general information about it, you now want to go a little bit deeper and know more about the work presented in it. Start going through the introduction and section titles, read the first and last paragraphs of each section, then check the data displayed in the figures and tables, and try to obtain a basic understanding of the approach followed and evaluation performed in the paper. Take notes on what you understand and what you think the paper's contribution is.

This kind of reading usually takes 40~60 mins.

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Great, you already skimmed through the paper and read the abstract, introduction, and conclusion, at this point, you know what the authors’ goal is and how they are proposing to reach that goal. In this method, you will get even further into the details of the paper, you will understand to core assumptions and contributions that authors were trying to achieve. To do that, examine all the details in the paper, the arguments, the decisions made and why it was made, the evaluation methods, and the results. Pay close attention to the discussion and future work section, it will show you how far along the work is and how much is yet left to be done.

Remember to approach the paper with curiosity and skepticism. Go through the bibliography and see if they cited famous works/names in the field or important names in the field. Question the approach and evaluation followed and decide whether or not they make sense. Once you’re done, summarize the problem, approach, and findings of the paper, add your own questions and thoughts to that summary as well. Go through your summary once more, connect it to your own work, and decide if you can use the knowledge you gained to advance your work.

Reading a paper in depth takes anywhere from 2~4 hours, sometimes even longer depending on the length and complexity level of the paper.

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By Author using Canva

Awesome! You’re now done reading the paper. 👏

What's next?

I made an infographic summary of the process of reading a scientific paper, just in case you wanted to skim this article!

Don’t forget to keep track of the papers you read. As your research career advances, you will come to read hundreds — in some cases, even more— of papers that you might need to reference when you write about your work. An easy method to keep track of that is to make a simple spreadsheet with all papers you read.

The spreadsheet should include the papers titles, authors, years of publication, and summaries of all the papers you’ve read. By creating that spreadsheet, you will be able to find any paper you need whenever you need it, fast, efficient, and completely hassle-free!

Lastly, always be reading, and always remember to challenge everything you read, because only then you will understand and gain the most of everything you read.

Good luck 😄

Written by

Ph.D. student working on Quantum Computing. Traveler, writing lover, science enthusiast, and CS instructor. Get in touch with me bit.ly/2CvFAw6

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