how I read papers

🔗 posted 2022-02-26

🔙 back to index

Listening to: Retirement Party — Runaway Dog

This is my personal strategy guide for getting the most out of reading research papers.

I read papers to explore ideas, not because it is required of me. There is no external expectation on me to produce work or novel research based on what I read.

If your circumstances require you to read specific papers that are making you miserable, I cannot help you.

finding papers

Big shoutout to Papers We Love. They maintain a great repository of both classic and modern papers. They also link out to a lot of other places that I won’t repeat here.

Links on that repository sometimes go stale and sometimes I’ll have to find another copy, usually searching the internet for <title> pdf and perhaps using a bit of scihub.

I look for academic and special interest conferences that catch my eye. Scroll through SIGPLAN Conferences, check out the conference schedules and published papers. Click through the links of the presenters and steering committee members, visit those sweet HTML 3.2 .edu/~ pages and check out their papers.

When I read a good paper, I look up the authors. See what other papers they wrote. See who they taught or collaborated with, and look up those people and what papers they wrote. Most professors keep a list of students and postdocs on their websites along with their notable research.

Wikipedia is another source. When I catch a reference to something that sparks interest, I’ll look it up, scroll to the bottom of the page and look at the references.

All in all: finding a thread and tugging on it until I’m bored.

how other people read papers

The Papers We Love repository has a few posts on reading papers. They are all a little different and you can pick and choose what works for you as a starting point. In particular I want to call out “Should I Read Papers” by Michael Bernstein.

guided by interest

So I’ve scrounged around the ‘net, saw an interesting title, downloaded that PDF, saved it into Zotero before I forget. What’s next?

I open it up and do a quick skim:

  • Headings
  • Bold/emphasized text
  • Tables
  • Figures
  • Math way out of my league1

If I start seeing too much hard math, I stop right there unless the paper comes with a recommendation from someone I trust who encourages me to power through.

While I’m skimming for scary numbers2 I try to understand the narrative from the headings and check out the tables and figures, see what sort of sense they make out of context, and if they make me think of any questions I want the text to be able to answer.

I also look for any callouts, bold or emphasized text, even phrases that catch my eye, anything that stands out really.

If I’m not feeling it, I move on to something else! Probably not forever: I find myself revisiting papers I wasn’t originally interested in but that connect with something I encounter later. That’s why I save everything to Zotero right up front.

I start taking notes once something starts turning my gears. Reading How To Take Smart Notes—a boring title3 for an insightful book—drastically improved my ability to work through interesting thoughts and generate threads to explore.

My brain’s cache for working through interesting things is small. Not everything I read passes the interest filter, but once something is in there I need to flush the cache in order to start processing new interesting information. I flush the cache by writing what’s in my head.

I recently recognized a tell for when I need to flush the cache: when I have to go back and re-read a sentence or paragraph or page because I was “zoning out”.

I used to hate this—c’mon brain, stick with it—but now recognize this means I have some interesting stuff in my brain that I need to start working out on paper.

please let me get in my zone

Zoning out is my brain making connections to other things, and when I start writing I can always follow the thread back from what I was starting to daydream about to the paper I’m reading.

Sometimes I take that opportunity to get back into the paper, but frequently I follow the other direction and find I’m zoning toward an idea I want to explore further, maybe one that connects to other references I’m working through (books, papers, blog posts, etc) or other half-baked ideas I started working out previously but didn’t finish.

What I do depends on where my interest is leading me, and if it leads me away from the paper I’ll put it away until something leads me back.

what have I learned?

I don’t process papers by trying to frack every last bit of information from the text. I can’t force myself to be interested in things.

Most papers I’ve started I still haven’t finished—my interest hasn’t lead me back there yet, and that’s fine with me.


  1. I took until my late 30s but I’m trying to learn more math, mostly using A Programmer’s Introduction to Mathematics and YouTube.

  2. I’m really enjoying Severance

  3. My partner makes fun of me for reading books with titles that sound like homework.