Presenting papers

You’ll present one or more research papers during class. Reading and presenting a research paper is a skill! Here are some tips, ideas, and techniques to help.

Reading the paper

This may be the first time you’re reading research papers, or even the first time you’re reading research papers in the systems area. Welcome!

Research papers are parts of a big conversation among the researchers and practitioners that make up the “research community.” Learning to read papers is a skill, and an important part of that skill is learning a research community’s values. It’s hard to pick this up in advance. Instead, you just have to dive in and read papers critically. An understanding of the community will come.

The style of most papers is dense (and often just plain bad). But you can get through the density by reading critically.

Don’t try to understand every word of the paper on first read. Instead, try to pick up the most important points by skimming. Then go back in more depth.

On the first read, focus on the paper’s overall goals and techniques. First, read to develop a paper summary in your own words. Here are four questions the summary should answer:

Once you have answers to those questions, you can already think critically.

With thoughts about these questions in mind, you can now go back and read the paper in more depth.

The aim of reading papers critically is not to prove the paper wrong. Always remember that the authors spent much more time working on the paper than you did, and authors rarely lie. (But it does happen!) Instead, read actively, as if you’re in dialogue with the paper. Ask the paper tough questions, and then read to get the responses. If you don’t get a response, that is a flaw in the paper; then ask, is that flaw technical or in the exposition?

Presenting the paper

First share the summary with us. Assume we’ve read the paper, but that we need to be reminded of its contents. Use slides if you need to. (In computer systems most papers are presented at conferences, and the authors’ slides from the conference are often available on the Web. Use them!) Then talk about its coolest ideas and its biggest gaps. Share with us what you might have done differently. Your critical thinking will engage the class more and help us all to better understand the work.

Presenting someone else’s research paper isn’t too different from presenting your own. Check out How to give a good research talk by Simon Peyton-Jones et al.

There’s some advice online about how to present at a journal club. Much of this advice applies specifically to medical papers, but some is good general advice. Some tips from Johns Hopkins