How to Read Long & Boring Research Papers easily?

We often find that if students haven’t done much of this sort of reading before their get to their final year getting started can be a bit of a shock. So, this post is designed to help you get started with academic literature and, just as importantly, to help you get the most out of the papers you read in the short space of time you have available (and it is a short space of time, believe me).

Remember the structure of a paper is just like the structure of your thesis

  • Introduction should introduce the reader to your research question and the broad context of the research.
  • Literature review should describe the work that other people have carried out to answer your (or similar) research questions.
  • Method should describe what you did to answer your research question (or to support your thesis, if you think of it that way), and how you went about it.
  • Results should evaluate what you have done, and say what answer (to your research question) you have arrived at.
  • Conclusions should summarise what you have done and how you answered the research question.

 

Academic writing (in the sciences) of all sorts follows something like this structure, including all of the papers that you will be reading for your project. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. One is theoretical papers which sometimes put their “related work” (or literature review) somewhere towards the end of the paper rather than after the introduction. The second exception is survey papers. Surveys are extended literature reviews and, as such, are a good place to start in your own literature reviews. ACM Computing Surveys is a journal that publishes survey papers or you can sometimes find them in reputable journals.

Briefly review each paper for relevance

You don’t have time to read everything, so it’s important to make sure that what you do read is really relevant to your thesis. So, to check whether a paper is likely to be relevant to you first read the Abstract. This should give you a brief summary of the whole paper. So, at the very least the abstract should give you a good idea of what research question the authors were trying to answer. Next, read the Conclusions. This is also likely to be a summary and may well give you a better idea of what results the authors obtained and what work they did not finish but left for “future work”. If that doesn’t give you a good enough idea of the relevance of the paper to your own work, try reading the last part of the Introduction. This is usually where the authors summarise what is written in each of the following sections of the paper, so that should give you a much more detailed view of what the rest of the paper contains.

If, after all of that, you think the paper is irrelevant to you, then discard it and move on to something else. Otherwise, you are ready to move on with your reading…

 

Focus your reading on specific questions

If you just go ahead and read a paper from start to finish the chances are that you won’t get very much out of your efforts. You are likely to ramble around the paper, not taking very detailed notes and at the end of your efforts you may not have learned much. A much better way to go about your reading is to keep in mind a number of clear, focussed questions and read the paper with the intention of writing down answers to these questions in your notes. That way you will finish with a clear set of notes that you can be confident will be useful to you when you start writing up.

I would recommend you use this set of questions to guide your reading:

  1. What research question were the authors asking?
  2. Why did the authors believe that their research question was important?
  3. How did the authors go about answering their research question?
  4. What results did the authors obtain or, what did the authors learn from answering their research question?

Making use of your notes

When you have finished reading you should have a stack of notes on all the papers you have read. This should be a much more concise way to start writing up than having a much bigger stack of papers and (most likely) not much memory of what was in them! So, the next thing to do is decide on the structure of your literature review chapter.

The first paragraph of your chapter should introduce the rest of the chapter. This is a good place to remind the reader of your research question and explain how the current chapter relates to it.

The last paragraph of your chapter should summarise what you have reviewed. This is a good chance to help the reader naviagte around your thesis. Briefly review what you have said in the chapter and refer the reader to the next chapter, explaining how the next chapter follows on from the current one.

The middle part of the chapter is more difficult and, since your writing will depend on your particular research question and the literature you have read, there isn’t much generic advice to be given here. However, you can start by reading through your notes and looking for common themes. Think about how best to present the ideas to a reader who has not read the same literature. Do you want to take the reader chronologically through the literature, from the earliest point to the present day? Would it be easier to understand if you split the reading into particular topics that are related? When you have what you think is a good structure, write some section headings into your thesis and think about which papers go in which sections (of course, some papers may well go into several sections). Write the citations into each section using something like EndNoteMendeley or BibTeX to format them for you. Play around with the structure until you are convinced that it will make sense then write in the details of each section.

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