Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How to run effective paper reading groups

Every year, I offer a distributed systems reading group seminar, where we discuss recent interesting research papers. (Here is the list of papers we covered this Spring.)

Reading group seminars are a lot of fun when everything clicks. But they can easily turn into soul-draining boring meetings when a couple of things go wrong. Here are some common bad meeting patterns: (1) the presenter goes on and on with a dry presentation, (2) without a common background, the participants bombard the presenter with a lot of questions just to get the context of the work and a lot of time is wasted just to get started on the paper, (3) the audience drifts away (some fall into their laptop screens, some start to fiddle with their phones), and (4) in the discussion phase an awkward silence sets in and crickets chirp.

I have been trying to tinker with the format of my reading group meetings to avoid those problems and improve the odds that everything clicks together. And over time I have been learning from trial and error what works and what doesn't. Based on what I learned, here is the most recent format I propose.

There are 3 components to a successful reading group meeting: the participants, the presenter, and the discussion process.

1. The participants should come prepared.

Here are the tricks I found to be most effective for ensuring that the participants come to the group meeting having read the paper and primed for fruitful discussion.

Cover only 1 paper per meeting. Trying to cover 2 papers in one meeting does not work. It is too much work to ask the participants to read 2 papers. Also 2 papers per meeting dilutes the focus and intensity.

Utilize the conference presentation video, if applicable. If the paper has a conference presentation video that really helps. Watching that 20 minute pitch about the paper makes it much easier to read the paper than attempting a cold reading of the paper. The OSDI and SOSP conferences make all the paper presentation videos openly available, which have been of great help for our seminar group.

Solicit questions from the participants before the meeting. In order to get the participants to start thinking critically about the paper, I ask them to write their questions in Piazza 1-2 days before the paper presentation. These questions also help the presenter to focus the presentation and get prepared for the discussion.

2. The presenter should come prepared.

Believe it or not, the presenter may come to the meeting with a superficial understanding of the paper. This makes things really awkward. In order to ensure that the presenter comes ready with a deep understanding of the paper, these are what we adopted.

Ask the presenter to submit a 2-3 page review of the paper. Preparing a powerpoint presentation only creates a superficial understanding, or even a false sense of security that the presenter understands (and can communicate) the paper. In order for the presenter to understand the paper better at a deeper conceptual level, I ask the presenter to write a 2-3 page review of the paper.

The presenter prints the copies of his review and brings this to the meeting for review before his presentation. All the participants review the hardcopy of the review-report in the first 15 minutes of the meeting. So in the first 15 minutes, it is all silence. The presenter is at the podium, getting adjusted, while we review his report. I got this idea from reading about how Bezos runs meetings.

Writing the report helps the presenter to focus on the message and really understand the paper. Reading the report critically prepare the participants to benefit more from the presentation. Their minds start thinking, posing questions about the content, and they listen to the presentation more actively as a result.

Restrict the presenter to a 10-15 slide presentation maximum. The presenter should perform no more than a 10-15 slide presentation. The slides should be mostly for visuals: figures, tables, graphs.

3. The discussion process should be primed.

The discussion phase needs some priming to achieve a fruitful discussion, a critical analysis of the paper, as well as brainstorming for creative extensions to the paper.

Spare enough time for question answering. We go with a separate dedicated question answering phase in addition to clarification questions that may come during the presentation. After the presentation, the presenter starts answering questions with first those that were submitted 1-2 day in advance on Piazza. The audience members who submitted the questions read the questions loudly, the presenter answers. And then we have more questions from the floor and more comments from the floor.

Elicit hands-on participation by writing mock paper reviews. In order to keep participants engaged deeply and elicit critical thinking, I ask participants to form groups of 3, and mock-review the paper, after the question-answer phase. The groups write the review collaboratively using Google docs. In a group, one participant may research about related work, and write that part of the review, while another may write about motivation/application aspect of the paper, and the other about the technical/methods aspects.

A group can also form to write about related research questions to the current paper, in order to come up with interesting (and secondarily actionable) directions for future work. Again the group needs to be aggressive in its effort and brainstorm to come up with "novel", albeit speculative/little-far-fetched, research ideas.

I am a big proponent of making/producing something, albeit little, as much as possible. (That's why I have this blog.) With this setup we will not only criticize/analyze a work, but will also get to quickly synthesize and produce some by products, in terms of reviews and blog posts. Sort of like a mini-hackathon, shall we say a hack-a-paper session.


Would it be possible to use this format in teaching courses? I guess, for graduate level courses with less than 20 students, this format could also be used. This format is similar to flipped classroom, but with more critical thinking and writing/producing focus. With more than 20 students, I don't think the discussion and question-answering will scale. Also it may be hard to fit all this activities in a 50 minute class; an 80 minute class would work though.

Related links
How I read a research paper
How to present your work
Tell me about your thought process, not just your results
How to write your research paper
How I write
Good Prose and How to write a lot
Advice to graduate students