Opportunistic Paper Reading
A Practical Strategy for Reading Research Papers
February 2015 (perspective of an assistant professor)
I encourage junior researchers to take an opportunistic approach to paper reading: asking an expert for 3 to 5 most relevant papers, reading each for 20 minutes, taking almost no notes, and then branching outward to read related papers in the most relevant conferences and journals published within the past 5 years.
One of the hardest parts about getting started on research is figuring out what other researchers have already published in your field and how their papers relate to your project. Since every field contains at least thousands of papers, with hundreds more appearing each year, nobody has a comprehensive grasp of all papers in their field. It's impossible to keep up.
Thus, for junior researchers (e.g., undergrads, grad students, research assistants), I advocate an opportunistic approach to reading research papers – reading only what is necessary to construct a compelling Related Work section for your own future papers.
Disclaimer: I don't mean that you should wait until the very last minute to frantically dig up related work as you're writing your paper. That's a recipe for writing a bad Related Work section that merely regurgitates what you skimmed in paper abstracts. With this disclaimer out of the way, I'll spend the rest of this article making a case for opportunistic paper reading.
(If you're more senior than I am, then clearly you don't need advice about how to read research papers, so this article isn't for you! I don't think these tips are too relevant for senior researchers, who often have different priorities and constraints.)
Dangers of Traditional Paper Reading
Before describing my opportunistic paper reading strategy, I want to rant about the dangers of a traditional strategy for reading papers. What's a traditional paper reading strategy?
I strongly believe that reading too many papers too early and in too much depth severely limits the productivity of junior researchers. Why? Because as a junior researcher, your primary job is to produce novel research in the form of peer-reviewed research papers. Producing novel research is inherently hard, so the only way to successfully do so is to sustain a high level of motivation, momentum, and marketability throughout a few months to years. Spending too much time reading papers will destroy your motivation, momentum, and marketability:
In sum, if you're a junior researcher, over-reading is extremely dangerous and counterproductive, since you don't yet know how to read effectively.
Opportunistic Paper Reading
OK so here's my opportunistic paper reading strategy:
If you follow this strategy, you shouldn't spend more than 20 minutes on each paper, and you can easily find the 20 to 30 most closely related papers and read them all within a weekend. Then when it comes time for you to write your own Related Work section, you can comb through your notes, pick out the most relevant papers, then re-read them in more depth.
My strategy is purposely myopic – you won't get a well-rounded holistic understanding of the entire history of your subfield, you won't be able to give keynote talks expounding on paradigm shifts throughout the decades, and you won't be the center of erudite cocktail party discussions. But you will be able to better sustain momentum and focus on your own projects without getting derailed by too many mentally-stimulating inputs which, in my view, are often counterproductive for junior researchers who want to maximize the quality of their research outputs.
Of course, top-notch all-star researchers manage to read both opportunistically and holistically, but given limited time and energy, I strongly believe that opportunistic paper reading is a better strategy for junior researchers. For most mere mortals, reading too little is better than reading too much.