Later in the semester, we will talk about how to write a research paper. To begin the course, however, we
consider how to read a research paper. This discussion presupposes that you have a good reason to carefully
read a research paper – for example, the fact that I assign a paper is (probably) a good reason for you to read
it. You may also need to carefully read a paper if you are asked to review it, or if it is relevant to your own
research. We might also later discuss how to skim a paper, so that you can decide whether a paper is worth a
When you read a research paper, your goal is to understand the scientific contributions the authors are
making. This is not an easy task.1 It may require going over the paper several times. Expect to spend several
hours to read a paper.
Here are some initial guidelines for how to read a paper:
- Read critically: Reading a research paper must be a critical process. You should not assume that the
authors are always correct. Instead, be suspicious.
Critical reading involves asking appropriate questions. If the authors attempt to solve a problem, are they
solving the right problem? Are there simple solutions the authors do not seem to have considered? What
are the limitations of the solution (including limitations the authors might not have noticed or clearly
Are the assumptions the authors make reasonable? Is the logic of the paper clear and justifiable, given
the assumptions, or is there a flaw in the reasoning?
If the authors present data, did they gather the right data to substantiate their argument, and did they
appear to gather it in the correct manner? Did they interpret the data in a reasonable manner? Would
other data be more compelling?
- Read creatively: Reading a paper critically is easy, in that it is always easier to tear something down than
to build it up. Reading creatively involves harder, more positive thinking.
What are the good... [continues]
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