How to Read and Summarize a Technical Paper

One of the first things I teach in my graduate courses is how to read and summarize a technical paper. Many students have not been taught how to do this. There are many different ways of course, but here are some brief guidelines that I provide to the students and then we practice!

The best way to read a technical paper is to take your time and read in detail the abstract and conclusions. Then scan quickly all of the material in between, noting the methods that were used in the research and how the results of the study are presented. Read carefully the titles of the figures and tables and scan the figures and tables briefly. Scribble short notes on the paper itself, circle things that are interesting, put a question mark by something confusing or that you have a question about, etc. Set a time limit for yourself so that you keep moving as you read. If it is a 15-page paper, give yourself 15 minutes, for example, for this first pass through the paper.

This should give you a good sense of what the paper is about and will help you assess what to do during your second pass at reading the paper. Ask yourself, should you read the whole paper, or just specific sections, carefully? The answer to this question depends on why you are reading the paper, of course! If you are reading the paper because you are looking for a new method to measure coarse particulate matter, then you should definitely read the methods sections very carefully and multiple times. If you are reading the paper to see how ozone impacts human health, then you should probably read the results section carefully.

After your 1st pass through the paper, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the main objective of the paper?
  2. Who are the authors and with what institution are they affiliated?
  3. Does the paper present experimental work or modeling work or both?
  4. What are the main methods used in the paper to do the study?
  5. What are the top three major results from the study?
  6. Was the paper well written?
  7. What did you like about the paper?
  8. What didn’t you like about the paper?

Now it is time to re-read the paper if it fits your needs, or move on to the next paper in your stack!