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I am wondering how long it usually takes to read a research article. I can see that the answer depends on:

  • The knowledge and intelligence of the reader
  • The field of research
  • The journal
  • The individual paper

So I am particularly interested in how long a PhD student or a young post-doc would take to get through a molecular or systems biology paper published in journals like Nature, Science, Cell, PLoS and PNAS. We can focus on papers of typical complexity for the journal, and ignore those that are exceptionally easy to read or exceptionally complex.

On multiple occasions I have been able to skim an 8 page, 5 figure paper in as little as 10-15 minutes. From this I could glean enough information to follow and even participate in a class or journal club discussion (though there would be a lot of asking question like "how exactly did they do this/explain this in the paper? I didn't read very carefully").

However, when a paper is very important (for example I want to use a variation of their methods for my own project) I feel the need to read it much more carefully. It seems worthwhile to closely look at even very trivial things, such as description of standard procedures like cell culture in the methods, exactly how much of each chemical was used for simple, routine reactions, close examination of control experiments from the supplement, what papers the paper has referenced to justify their work, and even what commercial systems were used and from which company, and whether the paper actually followed the protocol in the manual and so on. After putting this much effort, I also feel like I should take notes. This produces a heavily highlighted and annotated paper plus about 4 pages of notes.

All of this takes a lot of time. Occasionally it could take me a few days to work my way through a very important paper (for instance, if their method is unfamiliar to me and I will be adapting it for my own research, or if I want to draw conclusions by reanalyzing their data).

My question is, is this typical? How long do you usually take to read a paper? Should I start putting effort into teaching myself to read faster, or should I just accept it and make time by scheduling other activities to accomodate paper reading?


I can imagine an "incremental" strategy for reading at arbitrary depth. For instance, you could read the paper several times, each time reading more carefully, like so:

  1. Read only the title, parts of the abstract, and look at the pictures.
  2. Read abstract more carefully, look at title headingfs of results section.
  3. Quickly skim the results section to look for main point of the paper.
  4. Scan introduction and discussion, read results carefully to understand obvious limitations of their conclusions.
  5. Carefully read all sections, including methodology, to make a comprehensive list of all assumptions made and all potential issues with the research.
  6. Carefully go through all supplements, look at raw data if any and consult the other papers cited as justification to contextualize the research.

Logically, I see the merit of something like this, but I haven't tried it for the "dense" readings I've talked about above. The reason is that I'm not sure how I can take notes effectively when I do something like the above. It may also be harder to motivate myself to re-read a paper I've already skimmed, because I've given away the punchline to myself and the novelty factor is gone.

I've also written an answer on Mathematics@SE, which I think might be relevant to this question.

Note that I am not asking how to read a paper. This has been addressed in several previous questions already. I am only asking how long it should take a typical junior scientist to read one, so I can benchmark myself and see if I am slower or faster than is usual.

  • 1
    This isn't my field, but I think there is likely to be such wide variation that it is hard to define a "typical junior scientist" or a "paper of typical complexity". Certainly that would be the case in my field (mathematics). There's also the question of how carefully you want to read the paper, which also has wide variation but is hard to quantify. I can understand why you ask this question, but unfortunately I think it will be very difficult to answer. – Nate Eldredge Jun 12 '14 at 0:12
  • @NateEldredge True, but it would still be helpful if I got an answer like "I usually take this much time, and it tends to vary from this much to this much most of the time, the longest I took was this much and it took that long for these reasons, if you take longer than this much for this kind of reading then you may be taking too long". – Superbest Jun 12 '14 at 0:42
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    It should take as long as it takes. Some papers can be read in an hour; others take years. – JeffE Jun 12 '14 at 0:56
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    @JeffE Years!? Perhaps you're referring to the 50-page review paper that's been sitting half-read in my Mendeley library for three months... ;) – Moriarty Jun 12 '14 at 8:46
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    Keshav wrote some note on this entitled How to Read a Paper. – Marc van Dongen Jun 12 '14 at 9:31
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As you have alluded to, there are many ways to "read" a paper and the first question to straighten out is for what type of information are you reading a specific paper. A beginner's mistake is to believe you need to read from the first to the last letter of everything you find. This way you never get anywhere and it is the beginning of the learning curve for undergraduates.

If you are surveying a field, you skim through by reading the titles first of all just to spot the ones of interest. This reading takes much less time than to actually find the title. Once you are past this you may take on the abstracts to weed out the ones that sounded right but were off topic. This will take a few minutes per paper. The next step is to read the parts that are of interest to you. Are your summarizing a field then conclusions and the discussion may be what you focus on. Maybe your summarizing methodology then those chapters are of interest. In any case, you will read parts of the paper that are mostly relevant to what you are trying to find out. This may take a on the order of hours, sometimes less per paper.

Sometimes you need to spend time on papers to understand the nitty gritty details. I spent 4 days reading three papers to understand the details. I needed to write down equations and try to see the missing steps between the paper equations to understand the derivations etc. This type of reading is not what you normally do but it certainly happens.

So in the end, what you will learn through your PhD is to hone your skills to be able to focus on the details you really need from any paper. It is rare that one reads one paper at a time, usually it is a collection of papers and one often has to return to check on details that you either have forgotten, or may have missed, or, in fact, the author has missed. The need to go into the smallest detail of a paper depends on what you need to get out of the paper and with time (continuing through your professional life) you will improve on these skills through additional reading.

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Though not an expert in reading journals, I would like to provide my point of view. Actually the answer for the question can be made from different perspectives. We read journal articles for multiple reasons:

  • Present in a journal club
  • Attend a journal club
  • Search for a protocol
  • Search for a reference
  • curiosity about some novelty in the article

In each of these situations the way you read the article would be different along with the time taken to read the article. If I am looking for a particular protocol, lets say, genotyping a polymorphism, I will scan the abstract for the polymorphism name and then I will head straight to the methods to see the genotyping procedure. So this could be as quick as a 30 second search, provided you know for what and where to look.

Lets say, I am looking for data about the prevalence of a particular disease in a specific population. So again, I will scan the abstract for the disease name and the methodology, will head straight to the tables to seen the number of participants diseased out of the total cohort, which also could be a 30 second search provided I know where to look.

Lets say I am attending a journal club and I have the article with me. I will read the abstract, then the conclusion, then glance the tables and figures, then will see the techniques they used just to make sure I know about the techniques before I attend the journal club. It will not be always feasible for the presenter to explain in detail about the techniques in the presentation. This should take around 10 minutes plus the time you spend on search unknown techniques.

Lastly, If am going to present an article in journal club, surely I will be reading the article again and again till I have a thorough understanding for my presentation. Every time I read, I will find a new information in the article. Here the time required will be based on your familiarity with the field and the complexity of the article. It could be hours or days. So according to me its the knowledge about the structure of the journal in your field of expertise matters, than the time taken to read the article.

The time factor depends on what is your objective is from reading the article.

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Firstly, I agree with the frst response, that , in very well written terms the question has pointed out tthe diverse ways to attack a diligently written paper. In fact I would define a typical paper to be read as a slight variation of the same.

I usually let the first read be to grasp the salient points from the paper, and also define:

  1. whether i need it as ateast a typical paper for my future work
  2. if the paper needs to be stored in memory and needs to be noted and annotated.

If the paper does not satisfy the above, it is as good as read.

If the paper satisfies any of these two conditions or both, I would prefer, rather than assigning a long private time for it to be read ( which I have found can absorb as much time as i have) to tackle as under

  1. reread it on the flip side of another paper i am conversant with , in a similar area ( I always have more than one paper to tackle)
  2. reread tougher sections, important sections separately in 20 minute casules and be sure to carry the conversant science of the paper ( I work inthe Finance area and handle complex modelling etc, but I find it also works for any complex management/strategy/organization/communication construct)
  3. Set down a one hour-90 minute window to annotate all the sections and write out the notes for further dissemination or review

Let me know your thoughts on the strategy

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