How To Read Scientific Papers - Deepstash
How To Read Scientific Papers

How To Read Scientific Papers


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How To Read Scientific Papers

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Srinivasan Keshav describes the three-pass approach which acts as a filtering system. It is an iterative and incremental way of reading a paper. It consists of: 

  1. The First Pass: The bird's-eye view 
  2. The second pass: Grasp the content
  3. The third pass: Virtually re-implement the paper


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Goal: To get the big picture of the paper 

Duration: Less than 10 minutes.

Activity: Glancing over the following sections of paper: 

  1. Abstract
  2. Title
  3. Introduction 
  4. Conclusion

Ignore the content of section and sub-sections. 


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At the end of the first pass you should be able to answer:

  • Category: What is the type of paper? Literature? Prototype?
  • Context: What other papers are related to this one? Can you connect it to something else?
  • Correctness: This is a validity measurement. Are the assumptions valid? Answer based on your hunch.
  • Contributions: Most papers have a contribution section at the beginning. Are these contributions meaningful? Are they useful? Which problems do they solve? Are these contributions novel?
  • Clarity: do you think that the paper is well written? Did you spot any grammar mistakes? Any typos?


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Duration: Can take up to 1 hour. 


  •  Read the complete paper. 
  • Ignore details such as proofs or equations. 
  • Take some notes at the margins of the paper and write down the key points.
  • Look at any type of illustration in the paper like tables and figures and see if you can spot any mistakes or discrepancies.

At the end of the second pass it can happen that you still don’t understand what you’ve just read. Maybe this is not your field of expertise or you are lacking background information. Write down what you didn't get and fill the knowledge gap later.


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Duration: Can take up to 4-5 hours if you're a beginner(you should carefully consider if this step is worth your time). 


  • Read the paper in its entirety and question every detail.
  • Make the same assumptions as the authors and re-create the work from scratch. You can virtually re-implement the steps in your head or use any tools(like flowcharts) that you may deem fit.

At the end of this pass you should be an expert and know the paper’s strong and weak points. You can reconstruct the structure and explain to someone in simple language what the paper is all about.


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Doing a literature survey is a bit different than reading a single paper. 

  1. First pass: In the first pass you have to collect potentially useful papers. Find 3 to 5 recent papers. You can now continue with the usual first pass procedure. You can also skim through the references to see if the papers have any citations in common. Common citations are good candidates to include in your survey.
  2. Second pass: Vist the author's websites and see if you can find any recent work. Download the commonly cited papers. 
  3. Third pass: Try to visit the websites of the top conferences or journals.


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Use this only if you have to read the entire paper. 

  • Make little boxes: Surround equations, figures and tables with boxes. Do this during the first-pass. It will help to quantify how many details in terms of math equations you can expect. 
  • Highlighters: Highlighters are a great tool to mark sections in your paper and give them distinctive meanings.
  • Mindmaps: There are no strict rules in creating mind maps. This may help you to get the big picture more visually and will refresh your memory about a paper after some time has passed.


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  • Pomodoro Sessions: If you feel intimidated by the paper and lack motivation, you can use the pomodoro technique. Start a 25 minute timer without any expectations and read the paper. 
  • Feynman technique: Choose a concept you want to learn; pretend you're teaching it to someone with no prior knowledge; review your explanation and identify weak points; simplify your explanation. 


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