Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Opportunistic Paper Reading

A Practical Strategy for Reading Research Papers
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?

  • Reading papers near the beginning of a project to generate new research ideas.

  • Spending an hour or more reading each paper in depth.

  • Taking copious notes on each paper, and trying to organize your notes and annotated bibliography.

  • Digging deep into any remotely related papers you find in the bibliography of each paper, and reading those in depth as well.

  • Repeating until your eyes glaze over, and you realize that you haven't made any progress on your own research.

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:

  • motivation – The more papers you read, the more discouraged you will grow because you'll come to realize that every single idea you're thinking about has been done before in some other form. No idea is truly original. Senior researchers know how to overcome this paralysis, but for someone who is just starting out in research, this discovery can be crippling. It might even make you want to quit and switch research areas ... then you'll start reading papers in that new area and realize that all of your ideas in that area have also already been done (what are the odds?!?) ... then you'll switch again and repeat until you gouge your eyes out. (You may also get massive FOMO—fear of missing out—since you'll see all the cool work that other people are doing in areas different from your own.)

  • momentum – You can spend an infinite amount of time reading papers, taking meticulous notes on them, organizing your annotated bibliography using some fancy software, chatting with colleagues about the finer points of your favorite papers over coffee breaks, attending all sort of reading groups, dissecting papers as class projects, and so on. These efforts feel like real work, but they're not. As a junior researcher, your only real work is maintaining momentum toward your primary goal: producing novel research in the form of peer-reviewed research papers of your own. Your job isn't to read papers; it's to write them. (Wow, I wish I got paid for reading papers all day!) In fact, reading papers is a worse form of procrastination than even surfing the Web or watching television, since it feels like you're doing real work, when in fact you're not. After a day of binge-watching a TV show, you can't possibly deceive yourself into thinking that you got work done; but after a day of unstructured and undirected paper reading, you can pat yourself on the back and feel all scholarly, when in fact you still didn't get any work done.

  • marketability – To top it off, reading too many papers forces you to frame your thinking based on other people's ideas, not your own. This reduces the marketability of your own work, because you will tend to generate ideas that build off of other people's work in mundane and incremental ways. Of course, all research builds upon prior related work, and it's important to stay grounded in what has already been done so that you don't seem like a quack ... but prolonged exposure to other people's work forces your thinking to be reactionary, not proactively creative. As a result, it will be harder to successfully market your paper submissions to reviewers, since they will simply think, ”Oh, you just took project X and tweaked it ... boring.”

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:

  1. First start building up some momentum on your research project for at least a few weeks. How you should do so is wayyy beyond the scope of this article, but just first get started on a somewhat promising path.

  2. After you've built up momentum, find a few experts to chat with about your project, and then ask them to recommend 3 to 5 most relevant papers for you to read, based on your project description. Your advisor is the obvious first person to ask, and they will also likely know who else to refer you to.

  3. Read those 3 to 5 papers opportunistically, focusing only on the parts that are relevant to your project. Don't spend hours poring over all of their details. Extract as much relevant information as you can about how those papers relate to your project, or how you might be able to alter your project's direction to make it stand out more. (This is why Step 1 is critical! If you don't have momentum on your own project yet, you won't know what to look for and just waste time reading through papers in their entirety without a tight focus.)

  4. While you're reading, resist the temptation to take detailed notes. Jot down the paper titles and key points about how those papers relate to your project. Don't write much else, since that will slow you down and cause you to lose focus. The main purpose of these sparse notes is to serve as reminders of what papers you should read in more detail later as you're writing the Related Work section of your future papers.

  5. Look at the Related Work section of each paper and find a few other relevant papers to read, then return to Step 3 and repeat. OK here's the crucial final piece: Each paper cites dozens of other ones, so which ones should you pick?!? Favor papers from the past 5 years in the main conferences or journals to which you want to submit your own papers. Why? Because those are the sorts of papers that your own papers will be judged against. So, by definition, they're the most “related” related work to your own.

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.

Parting Thoughts

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.

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Created: 2015-02-12
Last modified: 2015-02-12
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