Reading a paper

For your master thesis (and during advanced master courses) you often need to read several papers. 

Intended for: MSc, PhD

Paper reading is time consuming, since a full read of a paper will easily take several hours. However, not every paper will be equally relevant to you, and you therefore need to learn to read papers in a gradually increasing level of detail. With each step, a (significant) portion of papers should drop (they don't make it to the next step). Consider these steps: 

Title & Abstract (1 minute): 

Decide: Is the paper interesting to you, then open it's pdf.

Quick scan (2 - 5 minutes): 

Decide: Does the paper seem relevant to you, because of problem, methodology and/or results? If yes, then continue. 

Superficial read (5 - 20 minutes): 

If you are still interested, then it is worth your time to truly find out what the paper proposes. 

Decide: Have you understood at a high level what method the paper proposes (this should be clear now for a well-written paper)? Are the methodology and results really interesting & relevant to you (would you consider working on this topic, using similar ideas, etc.). If yes: consider to read the full paper. 
Note: Be careful, the next step gets more expensive, so you have to start becoming selective now. Only continue for papers that really interest you. 

Full read (20 minutes - 2 hours):

If you are still interested in the paper, then it is probably worth it to fully read the paper (front to back). Some additional advice: 

Theory versus empirical sections: Many machine learning papers come with i) a theoretical section in which the authors prove things for an idealized setting and then ii) an empirical section with a practical algorithm that violates many assumptions of the theoretical part (and the authors for example use a neural network to solve the problem in approximate form). A mistake I often see is that students come for one aspect (either theory or empirical part), but get intimidated by the other half. Depending on you interest, determine whether you really need to understand everything (of course it's good to try to understand, but if this would take too much time, also dare to skip it and focus on what is relevant for your project). 

Decide: For most papers the process will stop here. You have understood the method, thought about it, and you may in the future use similar ideas in your own work. You only continue to the final step if you are really planning to work on the exact method proposed in this paper, and you want to figure out all the details. 

Implementation read (incl. appendix & code) (2-... hours):  

You will only take this step on a limited number of papers. Maybe you really like the idea and you want to use it in your own work, or maybe you  have come up with an extension.