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How to Summarize A Research Paper

Summarizing a paper has several purposes. After discussing some of them, I will provide some links to other relevant articles on this topic.

  • First, a summary is a way of distilling what you think is important about a paper, and can help you
    think more clearly about the research you have just encountered.
  • Second, a summary is an important way of keeping track of the reading you do without having to re-read entire papers each time
    you start a new project.
  • Third, as you read papers in your field, you are trying to build up not only an understanding of each paper, but also an
    understanding of the landscape in which they sit.
  • One last point: if you are doing research, you are looking for the gaps in the field. Every paper has a future work section that
    suggests possible gaps. Have they been filled in? Do any of them spark your imagination?.

Because of the first two goals, it is important to write a summary that is general enough to support
revisiting a paper under other circumstances, while still highlighting what is important now about a paper. Some questions you might want to
answer in a summary include: Who are the authors? Have they done groundbreaking work in this area, contributed incremental next steps,
or are they perhaps just starting out (maybe they're still students). What about this paper? Is it groundbreaking now? Was it groundbreaking
when it was published? Why would someone want to read it? What techniques were used in the research? What perspectives do they draw
from (Behavioral, design, technical, etc). Are they flawed?

You can also think about a paper as suggesting a lense through which to view things. If you read a paper about cscw, and
are working on an ambient display project, think about how the issues raised in the cscw paper might apply to ambient displays. The reverse
applies too of course. A lense like this can also help to identify gaps, things that need to be explored and discussed.

More general advice on reading a paper

One important first step when reading a paper is to determine quickly whether and how deeply you should read a paper.
Skimming is an important skill. Start with the title, then the abstract. Then jump to the conclusions. If you're still interested,
read the introduction, and if you need more details, only then do you actually read the paper.

If you get to this stage, always write up your thoughts in a summary, and keep a copy of the paper on file. http://citeulike.org is one tool for keeping track of both your summary and a copy of the paper, as well as letting you benefit from the summaries and paper choices of others. 

General advice on reviewing a paper

Because of the diverse nature of HCI work, research papers may make contributions in a number of different ways. The contribution of a paper should be judged using criteria specific to that paper’s contribution type (e.g., see the CHI guidelines on contribution type). For example, the CHI contribution type site describes questions that authors would likely address if their contribution is “Development or Refinement of Interface Artifacts or Techniques” :

•    Do you provide context, where you clearly review what is already known and what limitations exist in knowledge about this artifact or technique?
•    Do you motivate a real problem that is worth solving? For example, do you justify the beneficial value of this artifact or technique not only in isolation but within the global context of its expected uses?
•    Do you describe the artifact or technique in sufficient detail for others to replicate it?
•    Do you include a rigorous and convincing validation of the artifact/technique (e.g., empirical study, usability study, field study as appropriate), where you clearly show that incremental gains not only exist, but that the gains are of practical significance?

In reviewing that paper, you would need to ask yourself the same questions:
•    Does the paper provide context, where it clearly reviews what is already known and what limitations exist in knowledge about this artifact or technique?
•    Does the paper motivate a real problem that is worth solving?
•    Does the paper describe the artifact or technique in sufficient detail for others to replicate it?
•    Does the paper include a rigorous and convincing validation of the artifact/technique, where it clearly shows that incremental gains not only exist, but that the gains are of practical significance?

Samples

Although the practice of summarizing a paper is something you will hopefully employ frequently in your own reading, it is also a type of expertise you should draw on when reviewing papers. Thanks to the kind openness of Gillian Hayes and Gregory Abowd at Georgia Tech, we have an example of a paper, the reviews received by that paper, and a summary I personally wrote of the paper. Please do not view the format of my summary as a recipe you must follow. However, comparing these documents may be of value in guiding your own summarizing work.

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