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Reading a Professional Paper in Seven* Minutes

August 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Reading professional papers is an important part of a researcher’s life, and it’s an important part of every grad class that I teach. I’ve endeavored to identify an approach that works for my students that I present at the start of each semester…someone labeled it the “7-Minute McCrickard Method” (and yes, I embraced the label). The approach seems well-suited for an introductory grad class that focuses on 3-4 papers each class session–even on a busy week you can be poised to get a whole lot more from class with 20-30 minutes of prep time. It’s often easy to distinguish “Student A” who has spent even a little time looking through a paper from “Student F” who didn’t manage to do so. I recommend you endeavor to be an “A” student, and an “A” researcher!

So give each of these seven steps a minute each before going into class:

  1. Read the title, author list, affiliations, and venue. The title is a half-dozen or so words that the authors selected to represent their paper–read them and think about what they mean! Consider whether you’ve encountered the authors’ work before, and think about where the authors are from (academia, industry, government labs) and what that might imply about the work. And consider the venue where the paper appears–a conference or journal or magazine article or workshop paper, a venue highly specialized or fairly broad in the work that it accepts–as these factors will help understand the scope of the paper, the intended audience, and the degree of rigor in the review process.
  2. Read the abstract. In general, an abstract briefly captures the intended contribution of the paper, and since the authors were kind enough to supply a summary of their work…take advantage of it! You’ll usually be able to read the entire abstract in about a minute.
  3. Skip ahead to the references. Take a brief look at the papers cited by this paper. Do you recognize any names? Do the authors cite any of their own prior work? Are there familiar venues? Are there other papers from the same venue as the one you’re reading? Even a one-minute pass through this section should help situate the paper within the field.
  4. Look through the introduction. This section typically provides a framing for the issues addressed in the paper and the approach that the authors undertook in addressing the issues.
  5. Look through the sections/subsections. A quick one-minute pass through the body of the paper should give you an idea of the structure and directions of the work.
  6. Look at the pictures. By “pictures” I mean figures, tables, charts, graphs…anything visual that the author spent time on to summarize or exemplify the paper’s findings. So pause when you get to these and see what message the authors are seeking to deliver.
  7. Read the conclusions. Here’s where you can learn what the authors think that the paper contributes, and hopefully this will inspire you to think about impacts and future directions for you, your class, and your research.

Now the asterisk: what do those seven minutes NOT get you? Well, you won’t know much. You won’t be able to question deeply. You won’t be prepared to present the paper to a class or reading group. You won’t be sufficiently knowledgeable to cite the paper in your own work based on such a brief reading, as a citation is a type of endorsement that the paper might not be worthy to receive. But even after just seven minutes you should have a general idea of the paper’s intended contribution, and you should be in a position to listen to a talk about the paper, to understand how the paper connects with other contributions in the area, and to make the decision whether (and how) to read the paper in more depth.

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