How to choose and read research papers

The quantity and scope of papers to read can be overwhelming. There are several rules of thumb that we can use to guess about the value of a paper:
Where was it published?
Something can be published in a workshop, a conference, or a journal.

Who are the authors?
Some authors tend to do better work than other authors, so it's worth paying attention to who wrote the good papers. Also, by reading several papers by a single author, you can get a sense for the sort of `baggage' that an author brings along with him, and a sense for his approach to problems. However, even `good' authors can start producing poor-quality work, and unknown authors do produce good-quality work.

When was it published?
More-recent work (< 3 years old) often encapsulates the significant ideas of the older, more significant papers. But, of course, some older papers are valuable -- but you don't want to spend time on an old, relatively-insignificant paper. Before diving into an older paper, it's best to see that it's cited several times in newer papers.

How often is it cited?
The relative importance of an older paper can be estimated by the number of times that it's cited in works that are known to be related to the effort.

How and where is it cited?
If paper X cites paper Y, and paper X is known to be highly relevant, then evaluate how paper Y is cited:

What is its title?
Clearly, the title is going to give some idea about the relevance of a paper.

All of these can provide fuzzy, noisy indicators of the value of a paper to your effort.

Actually reading a paper is a serious time commitment. The goal is to proceed only as far along this path as it takes to derive the maximum value:

  1. Guess about its relevance by the frequency of its citation.
  2. Check the title, where and when it was published, and who its authors are.
  3. Read the abstract and the first page; does their problem approach make sense for your current effort?
  4. Read the section headings; what direction do they go in their project? What are their main contributions?
  5. Look at the pictures: what do their graphs show?
  6. Skim the paper, looking for the main conclusions and contributions. Avoid spending time on proofs, detailed derivations, etc.

    Everything before now can be done in ≤ 8 minutes.

  7. If the paper still seems valuable, read it carefully.