Reading research papers effectively is challenging. These papers are written in a very condensed style because of page limitations and the intended audience, which is assumed to already know the area well. Moreover, the reasons for writing the paper may be different than the reasons the paper has been assigned, meaning you have to work harder to find the content that you are interested in. Finally, your time is very limited, so you may not have time to read every word of the paper or read it several times to extract all the nuances. For all these reasons, reading a research paper can require a special approach.
To develop an effective reading style for research papers, it can help to know two things: what you should get out of the paper, and where that information is located in the paper. First, I'll describe how a typical research paper is put together.
Despite a paper's condensed form, it is likely repetitive. The introduction will state not only the motivations behind the work, but also outline the solution. Often this may be all the expert requires from the paper. The body of the paper states the authors' solution to the problem in detail, and should also describe a detailed evaluation of the solution in terms of arguments or an experiment. Finally, the paper will conclude with a recap, including a discussion of the primary contributions. A paper will also discuss related work to some degree. Because of the repetition in these papers at different levels of detail and from different perspectives, it may be desirable, to read the paper ``out of order'' or to skip certain sections. More on this below.
The questions you want to have answered by reading a paper are the following:
As you read or skim a paper, you should actively attempt to answer the above questions. Presumably, the introduction should provide motivation. The introduction and conclusion may discuss the solutions and evaluation at a high level. Future work is likely in the concluding part of the paper. The details of the solution and the evaluation should be in the body of the paper. You may find it productive to try to answer each question in turn, writing your answer down. I recommend that you keep a notebook on all the papers you read, or mark-up the papers themselves. You could use my standard two-page form that you can fill out for each paper. In practice, you are not done reading a paper until you can answer all the questions.
Also, you should be aware of the context of the paper in relation to the other papers in the class. Often a paper will represent a generalization, new direction, or contradiction to earlier papers.
If you find that filling out this form doesn't work for you, you can try writing a 250 word abstract of the paper--not rewriting the abstract at the front of the paper, but your abstract, capturing the above five issues from your perspective. I often find it useful to write an abstract because it develops the logical connections between the above five issues.
Taking time to writing down questions you have about the paper will often surface thoughts that were not initially articulated. Perhaps the paper was vague on key issues, or ignored issues that you think are important. If you come to class with such questions, you are prepared to counter or preempt my own questions.
Reading a book is somewhat different. Although you want to answer the above questions for a book, it may not do the book justice given the amount of detail in each chapter. You may want to fill out the above questions on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and then produce a summary form for the entire book when you have finished reading it. However, each chapter will have a particular slant that may make certain questions irrelevant. Also, a book is often not oriented towards explaining the solution to a research problem. However, engineering books are invariably oriented towards problem solving of one kind or another.
I have a habit of writing on papers directly, less with books simply because they cost so much. A well-annotated paper is worth its weight in gold, as it not only contains the content of the paper, but your assessment of its value to you.
Advice on note taking. Although I have provided a form that can be filled out, I actually advocate annotating the paper directly. The paper is a rich canvas on which to layer your thoughts. Here is how I suggest approaching the reading and mark-up process:
Until you have been able to complete the above process, it is likely that you have not yet thought critically enough about the paper. A second pass over the paper is sometimes required to have it all come together for you. To help you further structure your reading and note-taking activities, you might want to follow this rubric, using it as a kind of check list.