How to determine which papers to read?

Scientific papers are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Well, in fact many puzzles. Except they are all mixed together without knowing which piece belongs to which puzzle and there are no big pictures to look at either.

So how does one figure out which papers to read and which ones to discard?

Start with the title. Does it draw your interest and is it informative? Then move to the abstract, but along the way do a quick check of the authors credentials. You can understand a great deal from who they are and what the order is. Paradoxically, in the very best papers, the last author is the most important one. The abstract should succinctly outline what is in the paper and what the results were. If this is vague, move on.

Do a quick scan of the introduction. I say quick because generally the intro pays obeisance to what has come before. What you want to see is whether or not you have the experience in the topic or if you need to read deeper into the topical backgrounds.

Now, ready for this, jump to the conclusion. Is it what you came for? If so, do you need more detail, then read the rest. Do you question the results? Time to check references.

Needless to say reading a paper is not a trivial thing and takes time to build the skills necessary to be productive. So get reading, it is the only way.


Some advice:

  • Look for “review” articles. These summarize all of the prior art and are usually a great starting place.
  • Research the scientists who specialize in the area that you’re interested in. They will have written many articles on the topic. Often they will have a homepage with a list of their publications, to show off thier best work to the world.
  • Reading the journals directly (like frontiersin) is a bit like drinking from the fire hose. You’re going to need to do a lot of filtering: first just read the titles, and then the abstracts. The abstract will state the results so strictly speaking thats all you need (if you dont care about the details).