Reading Papers Efficiently with the Three-pass Approach

This blog post summarises the key points of the article How to Read a Paper by S. Keshav, in which he suggests a three-pass approach that he has applied to reading academic papers for many years. It may benefit beginning graduate students and novice researchers to cultivate a good habit of reading academic papers.

Figure 1 – How to Read a Paper

Firstly, to read with a purpose.

Most graduate students read with a reading list provided by lecturers. Initially, these students usually spend much time reading to complete reading tasks. Some soon realise there are loads of readings, and they do not have enough time to read them, let alone remember many important terminologies and details that may help with the quizzes and essays.

To complete a reading task should not be the purpose of reading. Instead, to solve a specific problem can be. Therefore, before reading a paper, as a novice researcher in the academic field, you better know why you read:

  • to understand a term?
  • to deepen your understanding of a case?
  • to find supportive data for your research?
  • ……

This helps you quickly decide whether to read through a piece of paper to get more details.

Secondly, to read with the three-pass approach proposed by S. Keshav.

Keep a reading purpose in mind so that you will know what you are reading for when reading the paper. Then you can do the first pass. As S. Keshav noted, the first pass helps readers to get a general idea of a paper. It usually takes five to ten minutes to glance at the title, abstract, introduction, sub-headings, conclusions and references.

Next, the second pass requires readers to read visual information like diagrams, figures and other illustrations. In this stage, you can take notes on the paper for some key points and see any relevant unread references for further reading. After the second pass, you should be able to summarise the paper in your own words and tell if the paper is relevant to your research and fit the reading purpose. Therefore, you can go to the next level: read more detailed information.

The third pass will take up more time as you need to read through more details. The following steps help with the third pass:

  1. Think of implementing the paper and see if there is any controversy;
  2. Identify and challenge every statement and think a bit about how you will present a specific idea in the paper;
  3. Make notes for future work.

After the third-pass reading, you should be able to reconstruct and present the paper ideas in your own words and have some ideas to improve the research.

Figure 2 – Three-pass Approach by S. Keshav (2007)

Thirdly, to read more and more.

With a systematic method, you will gradually improve your reading skills and be a faster reader. However, you should realise the process takes time, and the best way to see how you will improve is to do it right now.

Get a paper, write down the reading approach that you are going to follow. And then apply it from your next reading. From time to time, you will see the improvement.

And it is always good to start borrowing a good idea from experienced researchers like the three-pass approach by S. Keshav.

Extended readings

  1. How to read a paper (original version) by S. Keshav – http://www.sigcomm.org/sites/default/files/ccr/papers/2007/July/1273445-1273458.pdf
  2. How to write a great research paper by S. Peyton Jones: https://youtu.be/VK51E3gHENc
  3. Writing reviews for systems conferences by T. Roscoe: https://people.inf.ethz.ch/troscoe/pubs/review-writing.pdf
  4. Writing technical articles by H. Schulzrinne: http://www.cs.columbia.edu/~hgs/etc/writing-style.html
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