How to Read a Paper

Author: S. Keshav

Year: 2007

Reasons for reading papers

  1. Review them for a conference or a class;

  2. Keep current in the field;

  3. Literature survey of a new field.

The Three-Pass Approach

  • First pass is a quick scan to get a bird’s-eye view of the paper and gives you a general idea about it;

  • Second pass is to read the paper with greater care and grasp the content, but not its details;

  • Third pass helps you understand the paper in depth.

The First Pass


  1. Read the title, abstract, and introduction;

  2. Read the section and sub-section headings;

  3. Read the conclusions;

  4. Glance over the references and mentally tick off the ones one has read.


Questions one should answer after the first pass: Category, context, correctness, contributions, and clarity.

The Second Pass

It helps to jot down the key points and make comments as one reads.


  1. Pay attention to the graphs and diagrams, and check if the results are labelled correctly;

  2. Mark relevant unread references for future reading.


One should graph the content of the paper and be able to summarize the main thrust with supporting evidence.

The Third Pass


Attempt to virtually re-implement the paper making the same assumptions as the authors. During the process you will not only see its innovations, but also its failings.

Also identity and challenge every assumptions in every statement and think about how you would present a particular idea.


You should be able to re-construct the paper from memory, and to identity its strong and weak points. It also helps to pinpoint implicit assumptions, missing citations, and potential issues with techniques.