CSc 538
How to do (database) research

Researching a topic in Computer Science is a lot like doing a thorough term paper in English or History. When you explore a subject, you don't just use the original, seminal paper or book that describes the fundamental concepts. Instead, you use many resources that both refer to and are referred by the central paper or manuscript. The result is much more than just a summary of a paper. You have to form connections between what is presented and what you already know.

Read and critique actively

Whenever you read a technical paper, it's important to read actively. This means not only understanding the details of what is presented, but trying to understand the larger picture of why the ideas presented are a contribution to the field. For any work, ask yourself:
  1. Upon what work is the author building? What is the context?
  2. What is the author's motivation for looking at a novel, alternative approach?
  3. What does the new idea accomplish? What advantage does it have or what disadvantage does it avoid when compared to similar methods?
  4. What are its shortcomings?
  5. Are there certain circumstances under which the new idea performs well or poorly? Were assumptions made that, if lifted, would decrease the performance of the new idea?
Here are some suggestions of concrete things you can do to be an active reader: Next, we'll talk about how to find papers you are interested in.

Know the sources

In the database community, there's a core set of conference and journal publications that researchers go to whenever one wants to know about the state-of-the-art in the field. Here are some of them. This is not a complete list, but it will help you decipher the acronyms on the topic list.

Know the (real) sources

The "official" organizations above are useful for finding the meta-information about a work: complete author list, publisher, abstract, etc. These are all usually free. This is particularly useful when you're not sure if the paper will have the info you're looking for, and all you need is the abstract to find out. But for getting the entire text, most of these sites will charge, and you shouldn't have to pay. Typing in the entire title to Google is a hit-and-miss proposition. So here are more reliable ways of getting a full paper:

Know when to move on

It is important to be thorough when doing a literature review, but remember that it is impossible to actually "finish" reading the literature about a topic. There will always be another paper you can read. Connections to other topics are incessant. And new works are coming all the time. It's important to be able to "draw the line" at some point and move from active reading to coalescing, writing, and presenting.

Thanks to Dianne Prost O'Leary's page on graduate study, from which several of the phrasings above draw their inspiration.

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