Reading Technical Literature

Academic Guidance

Reading Technical Literature

Both in the natural and social sciences, the majority of your reading will not be from textbooks - it will consist of research papers. This is true equally of fundamental and applied research, and for much of engineering and all other disciplines. As my masters adviser put it, papers are "letters scientists write to each other explaining the current understanding of things." Papers are not the absolute truth; instead, they are stories.

So how do you read a paper efficiently?

  • Read the abstract, figures, and major conclusions, these are the results, and the major points in the paper's argument. Ask Yourself -  Why is this significant? Why should I care? What will I learn from reading it? A good paper brings value to the reader, and explains its own relevance well.
  • Read the introduction - it sets the stage for the paper itself. The introduction also lets you predict the angle that the subject researchers take on. Sometimes, the omission of a particular aspect from the introduction hints at the point of view or particular motivation that the authors espouse. What are their assumptions about their system, and about the state of the world? What are they saying explicitly, and what are they not saying? A bad paper is not worth reading after this stage.

Now read the fine print, and pay attention to their argument, and to their sources. In the end, you should be able to think through their argument yourself, in detail. You should be able to make their argument, as they did, and you will be able to see their flaws.