I am a PhD student (middle stage). I have read only 2-research papers from last six seven months. I have seen some research papers in which they have cited around 12-15 research papers and I think this is the case with every research paper. To me it seems unrealistic to read 12-15 research papers with the details I have read first two.

Question : What fraction of the cited papers has the typical author actually read?

  • 2
    You have two different questions in the title and the text body.
    – JiK
    May 7, 2018 at 17:04
  • A relevant related question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/23268/…
    – PLL
    May 7, 2018 at 17:22
  • 1
    This question about struggling with understanding your reading may also be relevant. May 7, 2018 at 17:28
  • 4
    Depending on the field (and maybe not even then), reading only 2 papers in the last 6 months is indeed a big problem. You need to read more, and read broadly, to understand your work and where it fits in with everyone else. Perhaps it was just easier when a paper journal landed in your mailbox to scan the contents and read a few papers that afternoon.
    – Jon Custer
    May 7, 2018 at 17:42
  • 5
    Voting to reopen because it's not a duplicate of the linked question. If the answer to the linked "Do you need to read a whole article before citing it?" is "yes", then that implies that the answer to this question is also "yes". But since the answer is "no", that leaves the answer to this question indeterminate, and it's not a duplicate.
    – Allure
    May 7, 2018 at 21:56

2 Answers 2


There are a couple of background issues worth addressing before actually answering your main question. Also what I say is I think fairly typical for math and theoretical CS; I guess some but not all is similar for other fields.

You’ll get faster at reading papers as you gain experience. Much, much faster. I remember in my first couple of years of grad school feeling similarly to you: reading a paper was a big undertaking — it could take weeks of work to get through a particular paper. Now that’s very rare — even a pretty thorough read of a paper (e.g. for a review) is typically under a day’s work. Longer than that comes only occasionally, if I need to really thoroughly understand an unusually substantial and novel paper. Mostly, it’s just being more familiar with the landscape the papers are working in, and the techniques used. Also, partly, reading papers is itself a learned skill.

You’ll learn how to read a paper in less than full detail (and when that’s appropriate). Again, I remember first reading papers, I would go through them line by line and make sure I absolutely understood every step. Now, I usually don’t need to, for multiple reasons. One is that I no longer need all the details in order to follow the general outline, because I understand the big picture better. Another is that I’m better at judging in advance which details I will or won’t need to know: e.g. if it looks like some proof is a routine calculation, then I’ll skip it, knowing that I can come back to it later if I ever need a similar calculation and have trouble doing it myself. Another is that I may be able to see in advance (e.g. from the introduction) that some sections will be more relevant to my work than others. And, of course, I can skip or skim parts that recall background material that I already know.

So, coming back now to answer your main question: The actual proportions will vary greatly, but typically, authors will have read all the cited papers at least in part, but will not have read most of them in full detail. That said, reading 12–15 papers thoroughly isn’t infeasible by any means.

Looking at the bibliography a recent 2-author paper of mine with about 30 references in the bibliography, they break down very roughly as:

  • 30%: I’ve read these papers/books carefully in their entirety at some point in the past.

  • 40%: I’ve read parts of these papers/books thoroughly (including the parts relevant to what we’re citing them for), and at least skimmed all or most of the rest.

  • 20%: I’ve just dipped into these papers/books for specific results we needed to cite (plus relevant background); I’ve not read most of the rest.

  • 10%: I’ve not looked seriously at these ones at all; my co-author is responsible for the citations to them.

This is I think fairly typical for me; but I also know some authors for whom I suspect those numbers would typically look more like 10-30-40-20, and others for whom they’d be more like 80–20–0–0.


I read the vast majority of the papers that I cite, and I think this is the case for many researchers. There are a few papers cited in my papers that I haven't read, but those have been read by one or more of my co-authors. And yet the papers I cite are only a small fraction of all the papers I read. I would guess that I read perhaps a dozen papers in a typical month (and I think this is fairly typical for mid-career researchers, though it may vary depending on your definition of what it means to read a paper).

How is this possible?

First, as you have already guessed, you don't need to read every detail of every paper. Sometimes you just need to understand one result, or you only need to know the conclusions. With time, you'll find that it's extremely rare that you need to go through every detail of a paper. See also this question and this question.

Second, your ability to quickly digest new papers increases dramatically with your experience and knowledge, due to several factors. Often, only a small part of a paper is concerned with new things. As you learn to distinguish what part that is, and as your foundation in your field becomes both broader and deeper, you will be able to understand the essential part of most new papers in a fraction of the time it took you before.

  • Reading of paper means try to prove almost each line of the research paper and try to complete the proof's given as trivial proof's by authors.
    – old
    May 7, 2018 at 18:02
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    @old: That’s not what it means to most researchers most of the time (as explained in this answer, and mine, and the other linked questions/answers). While a painstakingly thorough reading like that is worthwhile sometimes (especially when starting out), holding oneself to that standard on every paper one reads would be a very inefficient use of time.
    – PLL
    May 7, 2018 at 18:12
  • What it means to read a paper is actually a bit of a side question. The central question is what it means to cite a paper. You obviously want to be sure your paper is accurate when it describes the referenced work. That may or may not require you to understand every last detail of the other paper. Another side note: if you cite a paper in a research talk (especially an official one like your thesis defense), I'd suggest you do make sure you understand every last detail of it. May 8, 2018 at 14:09

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