Resources for Students
You can find here a set of resources that can help you write academic English, make the most of what you read and how to look for reads, as well as tips for presenting your work. Some of the content is purely subjective, you may like it or find me finicky, but I believe these tips are quite valuable: some are commonly accepted and will surely help you meet the requirements of academic standards. I will try to keep this post updated.
Research is about advancing knowledge, but your inner mental knowledge won’t be beneficial to anyone. You have to write if you want other researchers to be aware of your work, and the clearer the merrier. The process can include a structured presentation, correct writing, and a few LaTex tips.
Organize your thoughts
It is common to start to draft a research document by jotting down a plan. Note that a reader will surely read an abstract (and stop here if it’s not relevant/too bad to be read), likely read the introduction and the conclusion, but will peruse your document only if 1) they are required to do so (examiner/reviewer), or if 2) they work on the very same topic (which has a very low likelihood). You know what to prioritize.
The introduction should present the state of affairs of your object of study, from a general perspective to a narrower problematization. This is commonly called the funnel approach. It is important to arouse the reader’s curiosity, try to motivate why your work is important. It is valuable if not necessary to include your contributions (e.g., what is new), and to frame your research questions in the introduction. Ideally, you should delimit a perimeter within which the reader will be lead to believe your work is the only satisfactory answer.
The related work often comes right after the introduction, in that case its purpose is to make clear other works do not answer your questions, or at least not satisfactorily.
If you have not clearly stated your goal and approach (also denoted methodology), do not wait too long in your document to do so. It is in your best interest to formulate how you plan to address your questions as soon as possible.
The presentation of your results must be as objective as possible. No one cares if it’s good, or beautiful, or whatever: reviewers, examiners, and other researchers expect scientific material, potentially to reuse it.
However, the previous statement does not imply you cannot emit any sort of opinion on your work, just that there usually is a dedicated section to that end. A discussion is often welcomed, but must be clearly separated from the results. Praising your work won’t pass academic standards, but a reasonable argumentation may. At any rate, you have to be fair and present the limitations of what you did, this is very often expected.
As for the conclusion, it often is one of the only part a reader will read in your document: make it count. Summarize the key ideas of your research, and sketch how the limitations could be overcome (more research, sure, but how?).
Addendum: in some cases, such as conference papers, it is beneficial to give a catchy title that people will easily memorize. My recipe (observed from US research) is to have a two-times title:
- a punchy or even colloquial syntagm that people will remember, e.g., ‘Defending my castle’, ‘Every frame you send, they’ll be watching you’, or ‘Your consent is worth 75€ a year’
- a descriptive part, people won’t remember it but they will know what your work is about, e.g. respectively, ‘A Co-Design Study of Privacy Mechanisms for Smart Homes’, ‘Privacy issues in wireless networks’, or ‘Measurement and Lawfulness of Cookie Paywalls’
Correctness and style
This section is largely adapted from Nataliia Bielova.
- every figure and table must be referenced in the main body text
- “it’s” is a contraction for “it is”, not a possessive
- do not use contraction in academic writing whenever possible
- citations are grammatically invisible, you shouldn’t use them for nouns. Correct: “The PivotGraph system  features a derived aggregate network”. Incorrect: “Aggregation is also used in ”.
- whether to hyphenate a noun phrase depends on how it is used. Use “foo bar” when a noun phrase is used as a noun, and “foo-bar” when the phrase is used as an adjective. Correct: “we lay out elements end to end in a line” (noun), “we make an end-to-end argument as in networking” (adjective).
- in a similar spirit, “lay out” is a verb and “layout” is a noun. Correct: “we lay out the graph splendidly” (verb use), “the layout is splendid because” (noun use).
- in a bibliography, always always hand-check bibtex that you get off the web. it’s usually inconsistent or incomplete.
- be consistent with journal/conference names. No need for publisher address unless it’s someplace obscure, and no need for publisher if it’s implicit in the conf/journal name (i.e. ieee/acm), and no need for the location of the conference. Always doublecheck that the pages are in there (both the start and end page!). The only acceptable exceptions are when it really is an online-only venue where there are no explicit pages (examples include the PoPETs proceedings).
- do include the accepted nickname/shortname for conferences in parentheses after the long name. Don’t include the year after that nickname, it’s already communicated by the year that comes at the end of the citation. Don’t ever say ‘pages’, just ‘p.’
- example of bad bibliography snarfed off the web:
- “M. Wattenberg. A note on space-filling visualizations and space-filling curves. In Proceedings of the IEEE Symposium on Information Visualization (INFOVIS'05), volume 0, page 24, Los Alamitos, CA, USA, 2005. IEEE Computer Society.”
- after fixing:
- “M. Wattenberg. A note on space-filling visualizations and space-filling curves. In Proceedings of the IEEE Symposium Information Visualization, p. 181-186, 2005.”
- if you’re pressed for space, be consistent: ‘Trans.’ not Transactions’, ‘Symp.’ not ‘Symposium’, ‘Conf.’ not ‘Conference’. Don’t include words like “of the” or “on”.
- make sure that you’ve got the right capitalization in titles using curly braces around elements that should not be lowercased automatically. Main offenders are acronyms, and camelcase names.
In short: check your bibliography very carefully. Do not be sloppy and inconsistent. Be assured that it will be noticed.
The issues below are stylistic choices - I’m not saying the other way is technically incorrect, I’m saying I have such a strong preference for this way that I will change it whenever I edit.
- keep sentences short. Writing long intelligible sentences requires mastery, which can only be acquired through practice, so stick to simplicity and break these sentences down!
- avoid parentheses whenever possible, they interrupt flow. It’s OK to use them when defining acronyms, but otherwise I try to hold myself to only one parenthetical remark per paper.
- avoid e.g. and i.e., spell out “such as” or “for example” instead. Again, it’s a flow issue. However, it has to be weighted against the page limit often required by academic proceedings.
- minimize use of possessives with nouns. So instead of “feature’s sequences”, say “sequences of a feature”. It’s easier to parse.
- avoid “this” without a noun after it, especially at the beginning of a sentence. Instead of “This shows that we are fabulous”, say “This situation shows that we are fabulous”, to make the referent unambiguous.
In more detail from Ullman, on “Avoid non-referential this”:
“While it sounds pedantic at first, you get a huge increase in clarity by chasing the “nonreferential this” from students’ writing. Many students (and others) use “this” to refer to a whole concept rather than a noun. For example: “If you turn the sproggle left, it will jam, and the glorp will not be able to move. This is why we foo the bar.” Now the writer of this prose fully understands about sproggles and glorps, so they know whether we foo the bar because glorps do not move, or because the sproggle jammed. It is important for students to put themselves in the place of their readers, who may be a little shaky on how sproggles and glorps work, and need a more carefully written paragraph.”
Source: Jeffrey D. Ullman, Advising students for success, CACM 52(3):34-37, March 2009
- always use the Oxford/serial comma with lists. instead of “we have apples, oranges and bananas for sale”, say “we have apples, oranges, and bananas for sale”. The final comma is critical for resolving ambiguity in some situations. Like this one.
- you must have some prose between section and subsection header
- emphasize a word (with bold or italics, as you prefer) when you first define it, not when you first use it. ideally the definition and the first use are the same. but it might be a sentence or two later.
- firstly vs. first is admittedly an issue of personal preference. I strongly prefer the latter. Let me bring your attention to a quote from Elements of Style: “Do not dress words up by adding ’ly’ to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”
- avoid double negatives, use a positive instead because it’s easier to parse
- use parallel structure when possible, both at the level of sentences in a paragraph and at the level of section naming. Correct: Naming Foo, Linking Bar, Adding Bat. Incorrect: Name Foo, Linking Bar, Bat Additions.
- avoid switching between tenses unless you have a very good reason to do so. Usually what you’re reporting on in the paper should stay in the present tense (Correct: “the system is designed to do foo”. Incorrect: “the system was designed to do foo”.) past tense should be reserved for things truly in the past, like what users did during a user study.
- for captions, use parentheses around the subfigure labels to distinguish them “(a) blah blah”. Always have a (possibly short) bit saying what the full figure does before starting with subfigure descriptions. Each subfigure should have its own label, rather than having a continuing sentence where you mention subfigure bits as you go. Correct: “Key aspects of foobar. (a) The first thing. (b) The second thing.” Incorrect: “The first thing is great (a), and I love the second thing (b) too”.
LaTex is the most prevalent way to write academic papers in computer science, having a proper formatting can reduce the odds to see your work rejected.
- always use a tilde (~) before a reference or a citation (see here)
The other side of the writing coin is without a doubt reading. I assume that you are literate if you end up on this page, but reading academic papers and making the most of it is a different exercise that reading fiction, and one needs to know where to look in the first place.
Looking for papers
We can coarsely classify papers lookup in three main ways:
- you can look for papers on search engines, such as DBLP (specific to computer science), arXiv (open access) or google scholar (exhaustive but perhaps too much). Note that in the three examples given, you can find peer-reviewed papers as well as independent submission; it is your job to separate the wheat from the chaff (especially since peer-reviewed papers are not always wheat and independent submissions chaff).
- you can look for papers on the proceedings of specific venues, for instance PoPETS, IWPE, WPES, SOUPS, etc. The conferences I listed are the closest to my research interests, and papers published there are usually of very good quality. Try to make your own list!
- finally, you can look for work cited in papers you read. This is an organic way to look for references, and I still use it quite often. Some students recently showed me the existence of tools automatically building knowledge graphs based on citations, such as Inciteful (free of use) and Connected Papers (requires an account after 5 searchs).
It is one thing to read a paper, it is another to remember what it is about after a long period of time. First, you need to be able to focus if you want to read efficiently. I either print papers (bad for the environment) or read on an E-ink tablet (although having an electronic device also has an environmental cost), to avoid distractions caused by notifications on other supports. I usually annotate papers to help me remember when I read a paper again:
- I underline important passages
- I circle key words/ideas
- I write comments in the margins
But most importantly, I compile notes on each paper I read. I use this small template, borrowed from Antoine Boutet and adapted to my needs.
- one line summary of what the paper is about
- objective and more substantial summary
- strengths & weakness/limitations
- ideas of extensions (such a different methodology, new research questions than those presented in the paper etc)
Writing a small compendium has several advantages, such as forcing yourself to identify the key findings of a paper, facilitating the remembrance of a paper, and improving the overall memory of what you have read.
Managing your bibliography
The human brain is limited, but we can use tools to externalize some tasks, such as remembering what we read using bibliographical tools. I have not met a research who was not using such a tool.
I personally use Zotero because it is free (as in free speech and not just as in free beer), it works well and on multiple platforms, and since I converted most people there is now a strong network effect. Zotero comes with a connector to your favourite browser (Firefox, obviously), thus you can easily save any PDF, webpage, or git repository with a single click. I strongly advise to organize your collection (bibliography in Zotero’s terms) with folders (Law, Technology, Humanities for instance) and subfolders (Case Law, Legal Documents; Engineering, Mathematics; Psychology, Surveillance Studies; respectively). However, I presume that the use of tags and keywords could do the job as well (I find it personally too time-consuming).
A clear expression of your mind on paper is important: your writing is what will remain. But when it comes to engaging with other practitioners (this advice goes beyond mere research), an interesting presentation of your ideas will make a difference with the usual boring set of slides. Let’s have a look at how to make a clear and catchy presentation. I drafted some general recommendations, and guidelines to structure your presentation
I group here a bunch of high-level tips, such as designing a talk for a specific audience, how to think about the psychology of your audience, picking a presentation tool, and miscellaneous tips.
Identify your audience and act accordingly
There is no perfect presentation, but some presentations are better than others for a specific audience. Indeed, do not expect the same interest from young students, specialists in your area, brand new colleagues, or people likely to allocate you something (a degree or funding). While you need to convince all of these people that what you are doing is interesting, their expectations can be very different. For instance, make it as lively as possible in front of students (don’t bother with the technical details), but you can go down the specifics in front of an expert audience. It is ok to make a calculated joke in front of your colleagues if you intend to befriend them, but stick to something more formal in front of your master jury, they are the one who decide of your degree.
Own your audience
Your presentation may be a lightning talk of 5 minutes or a lecture of 45, but in any case the most important time is arguably the start. If you lose your audience during the introduction, it will be nigh-impossible to hook them again at a later stage.
Findings from psychology teach us that the second most important moment is the end, because it is what people will remember. It doesn’t mean you can screw up the middle of your presentation, but be sure to be catchy in your intro and to deliver clear messages in your conclusion. Try to impose a rhythm in your talk, you can for instance place a few hooks (catchy anecdotes, relevant news, or particularly lively moments) here and there to prevent people from dozing off.
Finally, remember to look at your audience, not to your computer or the board behind you: catching someone’s gaze will likely result in a better attention! This last advice is harder to practice in online talks, and I think it is also one reason why online talks bore everybody…
Choose your weapon
People have preferences when it comes to the tool used to devise their slides. I assume here that you read this to present a computer science work, which traditionally implies the presence of slides. This is not the case in all disciplines – for instance legal practitioners and certain philosophers read a transcript to present their work –, nor in all circumstances – if you popularize your work for a science fair you may not need slides.
I personally like LaTeX beamer, some prefer Google Slides ( although), others PowerPoint, LibreOffice presentation … but it is ultimately up to you. The important thing is to feel comfortable. I recently stumbled upon Slidev to create slides, I invite you to try it as it seems to combine an easy adoption, fancy slides, and the possibility to integrate many technical concepts (diagrams, LaTeX equations, code, etc).
General comments when you prepare your presentation, pay attention to the following:
- don’t present walls of text
- be wary of bullet lists (I know, the irony)
- don’t abuse transitions
- rehearse fully before the final presentation (that is, check every technical details in realistic conditions, and make sure you fit the time limit)
- favour clear slides (one message max per slide, schemas and figures are great for that)
- don’t forget to credit if you embed 3rd party material
Structure of your talk
We discussed how the introduction and the conclusion are the most important parts of a presentation. Let’s dive for a short moment in all sections and their articulations.
The introduction serves to anchor participants’s interest in what you are presenting. You have to convince them that what you are doing is interesting, and that they are not losing their time. Ideally, you should reach a question at the end of the intro that your presentation will answer. Typically, this question is your research question, and you will spend your presentation answering it.
The related work can be discussed at the start of your presentation to sketch the context, but I have also seen it at the end of presentations to highlight how the work presented was different from the authors’. In both cases, don’t forget to point out the limitations of other approaches: you have to make a case for your work!
The main body of your presentation will vary depending on what you are working on. It can be the combination of methods and results, a thorough description of the design of an architecture, etc. In the relevant cases (== you are doing something applied, which is likely if you are working with me), presenting a demonstration of your work will foster interest from your audience. This is however a double-edged sword, in that a failed demo can bore people out. A remedy is to prepare a video of the demonstration, it will limit the possibility to have a so-called demo-effect.
You also want to prevent ill-founded critics by criticizing your work yourself. This is called recognizing the limitations of your work. It’s not just important for your presentation as it forces you to acknowledge the ever-imperfect character of your work. A valuable presentation of the limitations should also be combined with perspectives (or future work, research avenues, etc) on how to address these limitations, whenever possible. In doing so, you provide a very useful way for your community to further your topic, and defuse the most harsh questions.
The limitations have to be articulated to the final part of your talk. The conclusion is the last thing people will see from your presentation, and therefore what they will remember the most. It is therefore important to deliver clear take-away messages such as “we observed an increase of y% in phenomenon x”, or “we showed the feasibility of approach z”. Do not fiddle, do not lie or overstate, be clear and assertive.
Because you have limited time to present your topic, it is common to review some questions superficially, while hinting deeper concerns. This is a smart way to orient the questions of the audience, because they are questions for which you have the answers. In that case, be sure to prepare some backup slides with additional material. It is especially if you are not very confident with improvised hand-waving, but it is also useful to present complex data, precise schematics, proofs, etc.