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  What is an effective and efficient way to read research papers?

+ 3 like - 0 dislike

I will be a grad student in condensed matter theory starting this fall. As an undergrad, I did the basic physics and math courses as well as a few grad classes (qft, analysis, solid state physics etc.)

When I start reading research papers, I often feel overwhelmed because there is so much that I don't know and I find it hard to decide which points to gloss over and which points to spend time on and understand more thoroughly (which in my case, would probably require supplementary reading of textbooks or related papers)

What are some things to keep in mind while reading a paper so that:

  1. I get a general overview of the paper and I more useful insights into parts

  2. I can do the above reasonably fast (say, finish reading at least 1 paper a week for a start)

You don't have to be specific to condensed matter theory papers when you answer.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-08 15:26 (UCT), posted by SE-user user34801

asked Mar 8, 2014 in General Physics by user34801 (40 points) [ revision history ]
recategorized Apr 12, 2014 by dimension10
possible duplicate of How to learn physics effectively and efficiently

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-08 15:26 (UCT), posted by SE-user Danu
I don't see any duplication. Reading textbooks is very different from reading a research paper. Generally, textbooks start reasonably from scratch, while papers don't. And if you've ready my question, that's one of the reasons I and many other people at my level find it hard to read papers, but not textbooks.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-08 15:26 (UCT), posted by SE-user user34801
Hi there. I have read your question. To me, the only proper way of understanding a paper is outlined in the highest voted answer to the question I linked. There is no substitute for going through derivations yourself IMO, and when you can't derive something immediately you have to 'dig backwards' until you find either a textbook discussing it or the original paper, which you will then have to go through.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-08 15:26 (UCT), posted by SE-user Danu

3 Answers

+ 2 like - 0 dislike


A Prof once said to me you should read the abstract, look at the pictures, then read the conclusion at the end, and then start reading the paper. It's only an overhead of minutes and you're slightly less lost and get an idea what the author thinks the value of the paper is.

What I also like to do when taking notes is keeping in mind the search for what are appropriate lists for data. I.e. make it a task to find out what sort of collections of factoids would useful w.r.t. the task you set out to do. It helps forming an appropriate hierarchy of things on your head, which is different for every subject.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-08 15:26 (UCT), posted by SE-user Nikolaj K.
answered Mar 8, 2014 by Nikolaj K. (20 points) [ no revision ]
+ 1 like - 0 dislike

I read a huge number of papers (sometimes more than 100 a day, getting them through searches in scholar.google.com) and need to quickly get an overview to find out which ones are worth reading in more detail. 

First of all, most papers don't need to be read in detail (at least not immediately), as there is lots of repetition in the collection of all papers on a subject. It pays to find out which papers contain the wanted information in the to me most accessible form. 

Therefore, I generally read the introduction, which gives an overview of the work and relates it to other (often more readable) sources (which I then try to find if they look promising from what is said about them and/or their titles if given), and introduces important catch words (that can be searched separately, or in Wikipedia to find their precise meaning). Then I leaf through the paper (concentrating on the initial paragraphs of each section, and on figures and other conspicuous things) to find out how easy it would be to read, and what sort of background is needed (more catch words) to understand the content. 80-90 percent of the papers don't survive this stage.

This takes 5-10 minutes per paper - except for the more readable ones, which take longer since I continue reading as long as I understand at least half of what is there and are not bored. I print and annotate the more interesting papers to be later able to find quickly what I want to remember. For papers that look good, I also try to look at the papers citing them (from google scholar). If the topic is new to me I may need to hunt in this way through a web of 20 or 30 papers, before I find the one(s) really worth reading, being clear and detailed enough.

At times I discover that I need to polish up some background reading necessary to understand the topic of interest, and then hunt for corresponding papers. Figuring out what prior work is needed to make a particular paper readable (because it uses the notation, concepts, terminology, or properties) is much easier than understanding the paper itself, and it saves a lot of work, as approaching a topic without having understood the tools is slow and unrewarding. I learn to know what I do not yet know well enough, and I practice that first.

Usually, more papers worth reading survive than I can read throughly. I take the one from the heap that looks at the moment most attractive, and try to read the section(s) containing the core of what I want to understand. The main work is establishing a dictionary between notation, terminology, and concept definitions in the paper and my own way of understanding things (which is sometimes very close, sometimes very different). Then I fill in new information from the paper, rewritten in my own style. This rewriting is what makes the material my own and hence ''understood'', connecting it to the body of well-understood theory that makes up my knowledge.

But understanding comes at different levels. This means that I read many papers several times in different depth, separated by days or weeks or months where I work on different aspects of the problem or on altogether different things. In this way, really good papers are nourisdhing for a long time. I aim for complete understanding only in topics where I believe that complete understanding is around the corner with a limited amount of effort. Nevertheless, partial understanding accumulates and sooner or later becomes complete understanding, as long as enough attention is spent on a given collection of material. 

answered Apr 12, 2014 by Arnold Neumaier (15,787 points) [ no revision ]
+ 0 like - 0 dislike

I would read abstract and conclusions, formulate some questions to the conclusions and than look it over to see where my questions could be answered. Than read those parts first. Include the figures in your first lookover.

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-03-08 15:26 (UCT), posted by SE-user KvdLingen
answered Mar 8, 2014 by KvdLingen (0 points) [ no revision ]

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