How to Read a Scientific Paper

As part of your research work, you will be required to read many scientific articles and journals, which are more generally referred to as scientific paper or paper.

The literature is growing very quickly, you need to have a good eye to identify the most relevant articles in the context of your research (see the previous course).

There are research works discussing how to achieve a scientific paper reading. In this course, we will present the techniques that have proven their worth and are recommended by the scientific community.

The three passes of S.Keshav

In order to read a scientific paper in an optimal way (ie above all to know if the content will be relevant for you), S.Keshav suggests reading the paper three times, each time with a different objective.

  1. First Pass: Bird's Eye View
  2. Second pass: Enter content
  3. Step Three: Content Understanding

Before tackling the three passes, we offer various techniques to avoid demotivation and procrastination (thestate of the art can have the effect of a blank page even for the most experienced).

Pomodoro session

The Pomodoro technique is a great tool if you lack motivation.

Take a timer and set it for 25 minutes. Do not expect any results. Eliminate all distractions and follow the three pass approach until the 25 minutes are up.

By using this compartmentalised approach, you will put all your energy in the right direction and gain more knowledge and information when multitasking. The good thing is that you can apply the Pomodoro technique to any task.

First Pass: Bird's Eye View

The objective of the first pass is to get an overview of the scientific paper and should take no longer than 10 minutes. You don't need to go into detail or even read the entire document.

The first pass consists of skimming over the Structure of the article, reading the Title, the Abstract and the Conclusion, and hover over the Introduction.

You must be able to answer the following questions:

Category : The category describes the type of paper. Is this article about a prototype? About a new optimization method? Is it a literary survey?

Context : The context puts the article in perspective with other articles. What other papers are related to this one? Can you connect it to something else? You can also see the context as a tree semantics in which you assign specific importance to the document. Is it an important branch or an uninteresting leaf? Maybe you don't have any prior knowledge in this area and therefore still need to build your semantic tree from scratch. It can be demotivating at first, but that's normal. (See the Mind Map course and Concept Map).

Exactness : Accuracy is, as the name suggests, a measure of validity. Are the assumptions valid? Most of the time, the first pass won't give you enough information to answer this question with certainty, but you probably have a hunch that's good enough in the beginning.

Submissions: Most articles have a list of their contributions right in the introductory section. Are these contributions significant? Are they useful? What problems do they solve? Are these contributions new?

Clarity: Based on the sections you just read, do you think the document is well written? Have you spotted any mistakes in grammar ? Typos?

Is it worth further reading?

This pass should serve as the first fast filter. When you have completed the first pass, you can decide to read further and continue with the second pass or you decide not to read further because:

  • You lack general information
  • You don't know enough about this topic
  • Paper doesn't interest you or benefit you
  • The paper is poorly written
  • The authors make false assumptions

If this article is outside your area of expertise but may become relevant to you later, this first pass is enough and you probably don't need to read on. If not, you can continue with the second pass.

Second pass: enter the content

The second pass can last up to 1 hour and here you should read the entire scientific paper. Ignore details like proofs or equations, because most of the time you won't need that specific knowledge anyway and it will cost you valuable time.

Writing small summaries or key points in the margins in your own words is a great way to see if you really understand what you just read; and you will remember it much longer.

How to read a scientific paper

Using the second pass, you can enrich your Concept Map or Mind Map or simply cross and correct the information already present (see the Concept Map and Mind Map course).

At the end of the second passage, it may happen that you still do not understand what you have just read. This can be due to many reasons. Maybe this is not your area of expertise or you lack basic information.

You can already mark relevant unread references for further reading, which is a good way to learn more about the context.

→ You can stop reading further because the paper is not beneficial to you for several reasons
→ Put the paper aside and continue reading after reading some reference material
→ Continue with the third pass

Third pass: understanding the content

If you are a beginner, this pass probably takes 4-5 hours. It's a lot of work and you should carefully consider whether this step is worth your time.

This step is mandatory if you are a designated reviewer of the scientific paper or if you already know for sure that you need to understand the paper with all its details.

Read the scientific paper in its entirety and question every detail. Now is the time to get into the equations math and try to figure out what's going on. Make the same assumptions as the authors and recreate the work from scratch.

Summary Information

Whether you make a Mind Map, Concept Map or a reading sheet, we invite you to go back to the root of this course in order to direct you to the dedicated courses.

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