I'm not native speaker and I'm doing a lit review at the moment. My Question is it normal to spend a whole day reading and writing about one paper? So I read the paper deeply and then write about it. The process takes more than 6 hours. Is that normal or should I try to double that?

  • 4
    There is a nice paper entitled 'How to read a paper' by S. Keshav
    – Rabbit
    Aug 31, 2013 at 21:12
  • 1
    @Rabbit care to add a link?
    – F'x
    Aug 31, 2013 at 21:29
  • I read that paper before. @F'x google it!
    – Kaser
    Aug 31, 2013 at 21:37
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    For me, doing a paper in 6 hours is lightning speed (especially if both reading the paper and writing the review are squeezed into this interval), but I'm in math. and never tried to write a literature survey myself.
    – fedja
    Aug 31, 2013 at 22:10
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3 Answers 3


Just to expand on Peter's answer, there is a saying on the University of Canberra's Academic Skills Centre: Reading and Remembering regarding academic papers:

Academic material is not meant to be read.

It is meant to be ransacked and pillaged for essential content.

Particularly, some of their advice for reading academic texts may be of help in helping you with the time taken to read and summarise the texts that you have, specifically before you start reading, have a question already that you want answered and very importantly, to optimise your time in reading academic papers:

If there is a summary, a conclusion, a set of sub-headings, or an abstract, read that first, because it will give you a map of what the text contains. You can then deal with the text structurally, looking for particular points, not just reading ‘blind’ and so easily getting lost.

I always have a subject-based dictionary on hand as well.

  • 1
    What is a subject-based dictionary?
    – F'x
    Aug 31, 2013 at 19:28
  • @F'x something like a dictionary of physics as an example.
    – user7130
    Aug 31, 2013 at 19:29
  • for translation (English–X)? or a lexicon of physics terminology? (I never thought that sort of thing existed)
    – F'x
    Aug 31, 2013 at 19:30
  • @F'x a lexicon of physics terminology - more general information about them here.
    – user7130
    Aug 31, 2013 at 19:33

I disagree that academic papers are not meant to be read (although many are unfortunately written that way...). But usually not every part of every paper is equally relevant for your work.

So how long reading and digesting a paper does/should/can sensibly take depends on

  • how familiar you are with the field
  • how much/which parts of the paper are relevant for your research
  • the kind of relevant information: is it a bunch of facts that you need (prevalence of disease X was fount to be Y in population P - here a day would be very long) or do you need to understand a method including what the idea is behind, what assumptions are made, what caveats exist, how it behaves, and so on (a day would be very fast)?
  • (how familiar you are with the language).

As to the actual reading skills, I like to mark important parts, and that will later on also tell me what parts I read thoroughly and what parts I just skimmed. And, while I also go over abstract and conclusions first, I'm a bit wary of accepting statements from there only: often, the detailed discussion or the description of the experiments give (explicitly or implicitly) important limitations. So that may need double-checking.


Reading efficiently takes practise. I think it is reasonable to spend such time on a paper in the beginning. I am sure the speed will improve over time. that said, however, you probably need to check on how you read. It is normally not necessary to read every word in a paper. There are parts that you could skim to get an idea of what is going on and then focus on the stuff your really need to know. You should start making notes about the parts you skim so that you easily see if you have read it in detail later on, and if need be return to it at a later stage. In the end you will get more skilled in reading efficiently and the key lies in evaluating what is key and what is not.

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