Tech ramblings by Marcin

Reading research papers for fun and profit

2016-10-10 00:00

Research papers seemed to exist there for others to read. They were that strange thing some people produced and no one ever read. At least they looked to me like this for a long time. But that changed. Gradually, when I became interested first, in distributed systems, than in machine learning, they started appearing frequently along blogposts and tweets. With mentions all over internet. This made me think about their usefulness in solving general, everyday problems in those areas. They were no longer that unapproachable, academic papers I read at school. Nope, they became something else entirely.

Over time I’ve learned to gather insights, ideas and understanding from them. I’ve developed some technique and would like to share it. Is it really helpful? I don’t know. Perhaps it just works for me. Can’t say for sure.

How to read a research paper?

The most basic paper that shows how to efficiently read research papers is “How to read a paper”. It’s great, short and succinct but pinpoints exactly the things you should do to read and comprehend such content. At least it works for me.

The whole procedure outlines reading a paper in multiple papers. It also states that reading from paper is a lot more efficient that from screen. At least it gets all the online distractions away.

I’ve decided to go with just two passes. First pass is just to quickly scan the paper and see if it’s actually relevant. Second pass should give me sufficient understanding of the paper to decide should I dwell on it longer (ie. to implement or use in some project).

Ok, so, here’s what I get from each pass:

1st pass

  1. read the title
  2. read headlines
  3. look at math formulas
  4. reat the conclusion
  5. glare over references

This pass should be sufficient to assign the following:

  • category - what type of paper is it?
  • context - which other papers are related
  • correctness - do the assumptions appear to be valid
  • contributions - what are the paper’s main contributions
  • clarity - is the paper well written?

2nd pass

This pass should be enough to:

  • grasp the content of the paper
  • be able to summarize the main theme of the paper

Bad Hackers Copy, Great Hackers Steal

Hey, it’s not me “going loco”. Check this guy - Avi Bryant talking about his experience with reading research papers. The video is here. He shows his product for introducing mass edits in spreadsheets by generalizing editing with a groups of algorithms. There are no details of the algorithms, but please watch this just for his great motivation and passion.

What I’ve already read and find important?

Since I’ve started tracking my progress with reading research papers I’ve already read quite a number of those. Here, have a look at some extremely interesting papers, at least things I find this way:

  • On designing and deploying internet scale services - great paper. A concise compedium of guidelines to follow when building big, distributed systems. Goes through different areas of a project - functional and non-functional requirements
  • Realtime data procesing at Facebook - how facebook manages processing all that data, how they move fast at such scale? This paper describes an ecosystem that exists at Facebook. Great to see they actually use multiple streaming solutions, just for the sake of “right tool for the job”
  • Design principles behind Smalltalk - very short one, but informative and great to read. Basically lays down a couple simple principles on building systems
  • Goods: Organizing Google’s datasets - not universally useful or entertaining, but if you tackle heaps of unstructured data on daily basis - ideas presented here are enlightening

Start small

Of course this is not for everyone. Just try and decide whether you like that kind of brain muscle stretching, or not. If the things described above scare you, perhaps try with something smaller. There is a delightful Youtube channel 2 minute papers, which goes beyond computer science and shows great scientific innovations in just two minutes. This in itself is just too short to actually get all the details, but is just enough to get you interested in a specific subject. You can later dig deeper into specific areas.


Reading research papers changes perspective. It’s great, do this as frequent as you want, but just ingest new ideas, or read papers that are effectively building blocks of specific industries. They are really good and reading the classics is always in fashion!