How to Read an Academic Paper
Let's face it, academic papers are dense and take a long time to read and often by the end of the first reading, we how much of the paper we have understood. What if I tell you there is a better way to read a paper. After reading many papers and gathering suggestions from peers and colleagues, here's what I have.
Always keep in mind the purpose of your reading a paper. You might be reading it just to explore or to see how it is related to your research or to write a review of the paper. Sometimes, it can be just to check out the literature survey or the references mentioned in the paper. Having a clear purpose in mind will help us keep focus on important information within the paper.
Format of Reading
Identify how you are most comfortable reading a paper. Do you feel more comfortable having a physical copy or an online version or a pdf ? Each has their own advantages. Personally, I feel most comfortable with a PDF that makes ti easier for me to highlight important things, insert personal notes etc. Most importantly, less chances of the paper getting lost after making all my personal notes.
I found that the best way to read a paper is to take a layered approach. In my first reading, I'd like to read the conclusion section. The conclusion usually has the most important contributions and results of the paper. Next, it is a good idea to gauge the idea of the paper by looking at the images and tables presented. A brief study of the tables and figures in a good paper should give you a decent picture of what the paper is about. I then read the introduction for context and the background/ related work sections to see the paper's contribution in the landscape of other research in this direction. I briefly survey the methodology section before perusing either the whole paper or sections of my interest in the second reading. It is a good practice to do at least two readings of a paper.
Identify the aspects you find most relevant to your purpose and make a small note summarizing the paper and how it can be of use to you. If you are a researcher, there will be innumerable papers that you will read in your career. Make sure to properly categorize and save the paper and the related notes for easy access. You don't want to browse endlessly through your paper repository for to quote a reference. If your work entails publishing papers, it is a good idea to add the paper reference to your reference list with a brief description of the context in which you could use the reference.