How to write a great research paper
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Simon Peyton Jones Microsoft Research, Cambridge Writing papers is a skill Many papers are badly written Good writing is a skill you can learn It’s a skill that is worth learning: You will get more brownie points (more papers accepted etc) Your ideas will have more impact You will have better ideas Writing papers: model 1 Writing papers: model 2 Forces us to be clear, focused Crystallises what we don’t understand Opens the way to dialogue with others: reality check, critique, and collaboration Write a paper, and give a talk, about any idea, no matter how weedy and insignificant it may seem to you Fallacy You need to have a fantastic idea before you can write a paper. (Everyone else seems to.) Do not be intimidated Write a paper, and give a talk, about any idea, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you Writing the paper is how you develop the idea in the first place It usually turns out to be more interesting and challenging that it seemed at first The purpose of your paper Why bother? Good papers and talks are a fundamental part of research excellence Fallacy we write papers and give talks mainly to impress others, gain recognition, and get promoted Papers communicate ideas Your goal: to infect the mind of your reader with your idea, like a virus Papers are far more durable than programs (think Mozart) The greatest ideas are (literally) worthless if you keep them to yourself The Idea Figure out what your idea is Make certain that the reader is in no doubt what the idea is. Be 100% explicit: “The main idea of this paper is....” “In this section we present the main contributions of the paper.” Many papers contain good ideas, but do not distil what they are. Idea A re-usable insight, useful to the reader One ping Your paper should have just one “ping”: one clear, sharp idea Read your paper again: can you hear the “ping”? You may not know exactly what the ping is when you start writing; but you must know when you finish If you have lots of ideas, write lots of papers Thanks to Joe Touch for “one ping” The purpose of your paper is not... To describe the WizWoz system Your reader does not have a WizWoz She is primarily interested in re-usable brain-stuff, not executable artefacts Your narrative flow Here is a problem It’s an interesting problem It’s an unsolved problem Here is my idea My idea works (details, data) Here’s how my idea compares to other people’s approaches I wish I knew how to solve that! I see how that works. Ingenious! Structure (conference paper) Title (1000 readers) Abstract (4 sentences, 100 readers) Introduction (1 page, 100 readers) The problem (1 page, 10 readers) My idea (2 pages, 10 readers) The details (5 pages, 3 readers) Related work (1-2 pages, 10 readers) Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages) The abstract I usually write the abstract last Used by program committee members to decide which papers to read Four sentences [Kent Beck] State the problem Say why it’s an interesting problem Say what your solution achieves Say what follows from your solution Example Many papers are badly written and hard to understand This is a pity, because their good ideas may go unappreciated Following simple guidelines can dramatically improve the quality of your papers Your work will be used more, and the feedback you get from others will in turn improve your research Structure Abstract (4 sentences) Introduction (1 page) The problem (1 page) My idea (2 pages) The details (5 pages) Related work (1-2 pages) Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages) The introduction (1 page) Describe the problem Use an example to introduce the problem State your contributions Write the list of contributions first The list of contributions drives the entire paper: the paper substantiates the claims you have made Reader thinks “gosh, if they can really deliver this, that’s be exciting; I’d better read on” State your contributions Do not leave the reader to guess what your contributions are! Contributions should be refutable
We describe the WizWoz system. It is really cool. We give the syntax and semantics of a language that supports concurrent processes (Section 3). Its innovative features are... We prove that the type system is sound, and that type checking is decidable (Section 4) We have used WizWoz in practice We have built a GUI toolkit in WizWoz, and used it to implement a text editor (Section 5). The result is half the length of the Java version. No “rest of this paper is...” Not: Instead, use forward references from the narrative in the introduction. The introduction (including the contributions) should survey the whole paper, and therefore forward reference every important part. “The rest of this paper is structured as follows. Section 2 introduces the problem. Section 3 ... Finally, Section 8 concludes”. Structure Abstract (4 sentences) Introduction (1 page) Related work The problem (1 page) My idea (2 pages) The details (5 pages) Related work (1-2 pages) Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages) No related work yet! We adopt the notion of transaction from Brown , as modified for distributed systems by White , using the four-phase interpolation algorithm of Green . Our work differs from White in our advanced revocation protocol, which deals with the case of priority inversion as described by Yellow . No related work yet Problem 1: the reader knows nothing about the problem yet; so your (carefully trimmed) description of various technical tradeoffs is absolutely incomprehensible Problem 2: describing alternative approaches gets between the reader and your idea Structure Abstract (4 sentences) Introduction (1 page) The problem (1 page) My idea (2 pages) The details (5 pages) Related work (1-2 pages) Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages) Presenting the idea 3. The idea Consider a bifircuated semi-lattice D, over a hyper-modulated signature S. Suppose pi is an element of D. Then we know for every such pi there is an epi-modulus j, such that pj < pi. Sounds impressive...but Sends readers to sleep In a paper you MUST provide the details, but FIRST convey the idea Presenting the idea Explain it as if you were speaking to someone using a whiteboard Conveying the intuition is primary, not secondary Once your reader has the intuition, she can follow the details (but not vice versa) Even if she skips the details, she still takes away something valuable Do not recapitulate your personal journey of discovery. This route may be soaked with your blood, but that is not interesting to the reader. Instead, choose the most direct route to the idea. The payload of your paper Introduce the problem, and your idea, using EXAMPLES and only then present the general case Using examples The Simon PJ question: is there any typewriter font? The details: evidence Your introduction makes claims The body of the paper provides evidence to support each claim Check each claim in the introduction, identify the evidence, and forward-reference it from the claim Evidence can be: analysis and comparison, theorems, measurements, case studies Structure Abstract (4 sentences) Introduction (1 page) The problem (1 page) My idea (2 pages) The details (5 pages) Related work (1-2 pages) Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages) Related work Fallacy To make my work look good, I have to make other people’s work look bad The truth: credit is not like money Giving credit to others does not diminish the credit you get from your paper Warmly acknowledge people who have helped you Be generous to the competition. “In his inspiring paper [Foo98] Foogle shows.... We develop his foundation in the following ways...” Acknowledge weaknesses in your approach Credit is not like money Failing to give credit to others can kill your paper If you imply that an idea is yours, and the referee knows it is not, then either You don’t know that it’s an old idea (bad) You do know, but are pretending it’s yours (very bad) Structure Abstract (4 sentences) Introduction (1 page) The problem (1 page) My idea (2 pages) The details (5 pages) Related work (1-2 pages) Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages) The process of writing The process Start early. Very early. Hastily-written papers get rejected. Papers are like wine: they need time to mature Collaborate Use CVS to support collaboration Getting help Experts are good Non-experts are also very good Each reader can only read your paper for the first time once! So use them carefully Explain carefully what you want (“I got lost here” is much more important than “Jarva is mis-spelt”.) Get your paper read by as many friendly guinea pigs as possible Getting expert help A good plan: when you think you are done, send the draft to the competition saying “could you help me ensure that I describe your work fairly?”. Often they will respond with helpful critique (they are interested in the area) They are likely to be your referees anyway, so getting their comments or criticism up front is Jolly Good. Listening to your reviewers Treat every review like gold dust Be (truly) grateful for criticism as well as praise This is really, really, really hard But it’s really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really important Listening to your reviewers Read every criticism as a positive suggestion for something you could explain more clearly DO NOT respond “you stupid person, I meant X”. Fix the paper so that X is apparent even to the stupidest reader. Thank them warmly. They have given up their time for you. Basic stuff Submit by the deadline Keep to the length restrictions Do not narrow the margins Do not use 6pt font On occasion, supply supporting evidence (e.g. experimental data, or a written-out proof) in an appendix Always use a spell checker Visual structure Give strong visual structure to your paper using Find out how to draw pictures, and use them Visual structure Use the active voice
These properties were thought desirable We wanted to retain these properties It might be thought that this would be a type error You might think this would be a type error The passive voice is “respectable” but it DEADENS your paper. Avoid it at all costs. Use simple, direct language
The object under study was displaced horizontally It could be considered that the speed of storage reclamation left something to be desired The garbage collector was really slow Summary If you remember nothing else: Identify your key idea Make your contributions explicit Use examples A good starting point: “Advice on Research and Writing” http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs.cmu.edu/user/ mleone/web/how-to.html
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