What strategies do you use to remember papers that you read? I usually take notes, but when after a while I look at the notes, I don't remember most of the details. So I have to go back to the original paper and read many sections once again. Are there better strategies for remembering key points from papers you read for a longer time? I am mostly talking about CS and Math papers in which details can be very easily forgotten.


8 Answers 8


The advice I was given by my supervisor is to write about a paragraph on each of the four following points for each paper you read (note, this is from a very CS perspective):

  • What's the context for the paper, in other words, what is the issue that the paper's trying to tackle, and what's the prior work in the area, or the work that the paper's trying to build off. For word published as parts of bigger projects, what's the overall aim of the project, and how does the paper fit in.

  • What's the key contribution of the paper, i.e. what is the central idea, or improvement that the paper presents over the state of the art. I (personally) find this one of the more important sections (especially in terms of remembering papers later), as this is where you need to really hone in on what the code idea behind the paper is, without all the extraneous implementation detail/proofs/arguments.

  • Criticisms of the work, no research is perfect! I'm personally terrible at looking back at papers I've read with rose tinted glasses, leading to a little bit of imposter syndrome. Having a list of criticisms of the paper can help to dull that, as well as providing a good counterbalance to the "key contribution" section.

  • Any other thoughts. As the purposes of the four points is to help remember the paper later, it's also important to make a note of what you personally thought while reading the paper. Really liked a sidenote they made? Make a note of it. Found an corner case you don't think they cover properly? Make a note of it - you could turn it into research later!

I usually find that I take about 10 minutes writing notes on each paper, along with about the amount of text that I've written for this answer. Your mileage as to how much you want to say about each paper may vary however.

  • 2
    +1 as I can see the benefit despite suggesting a very different take myself. There are very few papers in my field that would warrant this much attention (most are short), many make one helpful (to me) point and are more useful for their references.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 14:16

I try to give a brief summary to every article I read. I highlight and make notes on the paper and transfer this from analogue to digital with Mendeley.

In Mendeley there is a 'notes' section, where I post notes about the article. This includes:

  • Hypothesis
  • Interesting methods
  • Important conclusions
  • Thoughts for the future

Maybe this is something you can use as well? This is in medicine/biology by the way, more concept based than math based..

EDIT: Here is my full list (which I never manage to fill in completely, but it helps):

Complete citation: Key Words: General subject: Specific subject:


Methodology: Result(s):

Summary of key points:

Context (how this article relates to other work in the field; how it ties in with key issues and findings by others, including yourself):

Significance (to the field; in relation to your own work):

Important Figures and/or Tables (brief description; page number):

Cited References to follow up on (cite those obviously related to your topic AND any papers frequently cited by others because those works may well prove to be essential as you develop your own work):

Other Comments:


I get much more from a paper if I do a few things:

First, I try to connect it with the research program it comes from. One of my advisors is really incredible at giving a brief bio of almost any researcher in the field including their PhD advisor, the topics that interest them, where they might have done a postdoc, who their collaborators are, etc. All this stuff can seem kind of tangential until you start to see the connections between researchers and programs. At that point, it becomes an extra associative dimension to help you recall the research itself.

Second, I try to work in a discussion of every important paper I read with an advisor. When I'm approaching a deadline and reading a lot this doesn't work, but in more relaxed periods I try to set a plan in advance (e.g. 'Next week let's talk about these three hippocampal modeling papers') so that I know as I'm reading I am going to need to remember both big ideas and technical details. Talking through the paper lets you relate it to other ideas in the field, compare and contrast, expand upon the ideas, and critique things. All of these are good on their own, but also useful because they offer more associative threads to tie the paper into a web of knowledge.

I'm sure there are other strategies. For really important ideas, Mitchell Carroll's answer probably is best, since you need to work through them on your own to fully understand the subtleties.


Expect to go back to the original for matters of substance, otherwise a 1-bit error in your recollection could make you suffer (e.g. changing the sign in an equation).

Concentrate only on remembering the major author(s) and affiliation (easy way to mention it to someone else), how you would find it again, and the key new stuff (for you) which you should find in the abstract. If there's an important equation/algorithm/method etc. then you will want to write it down, but that's not so much remembering a paper as learning something new from the starting point of a paper.

Edit: I should note that I vastly prefer reading papers on paper and can therefore make margin notes and file particularly interesting ones.


Here's some good rules of thumb I saw (or did I hear it? :) ) and remembered (amazingly enough). Can't remember where though...:

What you hear, you forget,
what you see, you remember,
what you do, you understand.

"Jokes" aside, what worked best for me at least while studying and trying to remember things was to try and explain/retell to someone who really is not in your field.

For instance, a sibling or parent etc. The hardest part is to get them to agree to it, but hey no one said education was cheap (sacrifices and returned favors are to be expected in some cases). Perhaps they may put you to the same use for their similar needs :)

It is easier if you can incorporate your theory into what would be a really exciting example for the person in mind. Trying to Re-tell something advanced in an understandable and exciting way to someone who does not know very much about your field does Wonders (at least it did for me).

Because when you have read a paper -> written notes -> finished the exercises -> feeling you "basically understand" what you've studied, the final nail in the memory-coffin is to teach what you think you've learned.

Because once you have managed to successfully explain to someone else (which may take time but is kind of very fun as well and very well spent time!) you will probably have twisted and tried to anser questions, finding alternative ways to explain, simplify, and come up with real-world examples to make the counterpart get some kind of feeling (if not fully understand it, which may not be expected of course), that you quickly realize which parts you had to check up in the book/papers again.

This is no easy task but it is very funny (I think so at least, like to teach and learn) and my heasd usually got really tired afterwards (you know "tired" like when being up late studying and suddenly the brain gets "high" and youtube clips suddenly become very funny and all). This is because it puts your brain to hard work during quite some time, but the key is that it one likes it so it is fine and the brain will remember more than one may imagine.

I shall not share my whole life story, but I can tell you that this was without doubt the most effective (and probably efficient) way for me to not only remember, but more importantly to also understand and get new perspectives on the subject.


As a CS major and programmer who has to look at Java's API for most anything past System.out.println(), I have learned that memorization can almost hurt more than it helps in CS. That pertaining to programming itself, and not to research and papers, my strategy for remembering information I read is to do an exercise pertaining to the information soon after, if not immediately after or even during, I read it. For example, if I'm reading about amortized analysis, I always have the associated homework or practice problems next to me, working on them as I read. I find that memorization is almost a self-defeating goal, as memorization for its own sake almost always fades away quickly for me, where if I apply knowledge or information soon after taking in information, it helps me to more completely digest the information and it begins to become second nature.


Take notes. Information passed though brain to hand, especially if you take the time to think about it and rephrase, ask additional questions, etc., is a bit more likely to be remembered. Reading it aloud, "in character", also sometimes worked for me but requires privacy.

  • 3
    OP stated that he's already taking notes, they're just not helping enough.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 14:12

The main reason why people forget what they read is the lack of rehearsal. I used a notebook to keep track of the important notes I've read. Some apps are also great for that: i.e. Evernote, Readult or any note taker. While on the road (for example, on my way to the office) - I know always take time to scan through my notes, to keep them in my head.

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