Friday, October 15, 2010

How to be on top of your field

Most computer science fields are fast moving. There’s a lot going on all the time at universities and research labs. Hundreds of publications appear every year through the few major conferences and journals of a field, not to mention venues with lower ranking. It is particularly important to keep a close eye on the advances going on in your field because research is –usually- incremental. You start where others left off. If you don’t know the recent findings of other scientists in the field, you will have hard time figuring out what topics are important, what approaches are popular, what the state of the art solving a particular problem is, etc.

Problem is: we spend a lot of time working on a particular project, taking care of our day-to-day job responsibilities, and trying to meet deadlines. It’s not uncommon for such activities to take up all the time we have, leaving no time for expanding our knowledge learning about recent findings in the field.

One way to solve this problem is to attend related major conferences. In addition to learning about new advances presented in the conference, you will have the opportunity to mingle with other researchers working on similar/related problems which may lead to collaboration projects. Unfortunately, this is not always a viable solution. Who got the bandwidth and resources to attend all related conferences!

Another solution that’s more affordable for research groups in universities as well as research labs was described by Prof. Azer Bestavros as follows:
  • Each member in the group maintains a list of interesting papers s/he would like to read, covering last year’s proceedings of the major conferences and journals in the field.
  • Schedule a recurrent 15-minutes meeting (frequency depends on the group size) in which one of the group members gives an overview on a paper in his list.
For example, a group of size 10 may choose to hold this meeting every other day. This way, every member gives 0.5 talk per week and listens to 2.5 talks per week. Good deal, huh?


  1. Very nice idea Waleed, but I think it would be better to make presentations less frequent but for little longer time and presenting a set of related papers. Comparing the work of related papers usually gives higher information gain the describing each individually.

    Another thing, attending conferences of course will give you a good idea about the state-of-the-art in this field. However, the higher gain is from the discussions with other researchers. Unfortunately, this can't be done from just reading papers.

  2. This idea is called "journal clubs". Most of research groups in North America is doing these weekly journal clubs meeting to stay up to date with the literature. It is very nice to find it spreading in Egypt too.

  3. It's great to hear from you both!

    I agree discussing/comparing related papers would give higher information gain. But it sort of puts more constraints on paper selection, which might make it less enjoyable. I guess it's a trade off between depth and fun.
    Regarding the discussion, yea, there is nothing like living the real thing. But when this is not an option, I believe technology should have a role imitating the discussion, and even building on it. For example, Microsoft Academic Search now lets users contribute to information related to publications. It would be great if they can extend this portal to let people discuss the paper, and even upload/link to videos of the talk and discussion from the conference. I see it coming.

    First time to hear the term. I even didn't know it's a popular thing in North America. Thank you!