Thoughts on Academic Research

Dated Jun 15, 2021; last modified on Thu, 02 Sep 2021

How to Read a Paper

The First Pass (5 - 10 min)

Objectives: category, context, validity of assumptions, contributions and quality of writing.

  • Carefully read the title, abstract, and introduction.
  • Read the section and sub-section headings, but ignore everything else
  • Glance at the math to determine the underlying theoretical foundations
  • Read the conclusions.
  • Mentally tick off references that you’ve already read.

Most of the papers will not make it beyond this step. There’s only so much time.

Instead, aim to skim 3 papers a week. In a decade, you’ll have skimmed 1,560 abstracts which predisposes you to more “Oh, wait, I’ve seen this before” insights, which are pretty valuable.

The Second Pass (1 hour for experienced readers)

Objectives: be able to summarize paper’s main idea, with supporting evidence, to someone else.

  • Read closely, but ignore details such as proofs.
  • Note down unfamiliar terms and questions for the author
  • Examine figures, diagrams and illustrations.
  • Mark relevant unread references for further reading

The Third Pass (2 hours for an experienced reader)

Objectives: Making the same assumptions as the authors, re-create the work.

  • Identify and challenge every assumption in every statement.
  • Think how you yourself would present a particular idea.
  • Jot down ideas for future work.

On Coming Up With New Theories

A crackpot publicizes a theory that feels right. A theorist goes further to try and disprove a theory that feels right, before publishing it.

There is still value in an earnest well-thought out theory, even if it turns out wrong, e.g. saving others the trouble. Juniors spend far more time making sure they know everything, while seniors release more half-baked ideas - yet the senior’s half-baked ideas will probably be more widely read.

Rules for Reporting Models

Express levels of uncertainty. Report and weigh conflicting models. Describe assumptions and inputs (and sensitivity) of models. Indicate if model is from outside the mainstream.

There’s still a gap in how people perceive probabilities. For instance, the IPCC defines \(p \le .33\) as “unlikely” . \(.33\) is too close for comfort for me.

People often forget models are simplifications. Also, labelling something gives the misconception that we understand it, e.g. democracy, privilege.

Limits to Peer Review

Peer review usually involves vetting by 3 people of similar backgrounds, i.e. peers. Peers are susceptible to groupthink, e.g. papers in the Journal of Marxian Studies will give you a good sense of what the Marxians believe.

Outsiders are more likely to assess the evidence, e.g. are 20-percentage-point vote swings plausible during campaigns? Peers tend to assume that the nitty gritty details are correct.

Hyperlinking to other’s work makes the linkers have skin in the game. The peer reviewers are (sort of) anonymized - if the paper blows up, their reputation is not (publicly) on the line.

Beware The Man Of One Study

Even when there’s what seems like overwhelming in favor of a certain point of view, don’t trust it until you ascertain that the opposite side does not also have overwhelming evidence.

Contradictory evidence may stem from inevitable variation, some studies being higher quality than others, studies about slightly different things being lumped together, etc.

References

  1. How to Read a Paper. Srinivasan Keshav. University of Waterloo. https://blizzard.cs.uwaterloo.ca/keshav/home/Papers/data/07/paper-reading.pdf . Feb 17, 2016.
  2. Crackpottery in Theory Formation. Brian Skinner. https://twitter.com/gravity_levity/status/1036368530676047872 . Sep 2, 2018.
  3. Separating Theory from Nonsense via Communication Norms, not Truth. Artem Kaznatcheev. https://egtheory.wordpress.com/2018/09/08/theory-norms/ . Sep 8, 2018.
  4. ​Guidance Note for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Consistent Treatment of Uncertainties. Michael D. Mastrandrea; Christopher B. Field; Thomas F. Stocker; Ottmar Edenhofer; Kristie L. Ebi; David J. Frame; Hermann Held; Elmar Kriegler; Katharine J. Mach; Patrick R. Matschoss; Gian-Kasper Plattner; Gary W. Yohe; Francis W. Zwiers. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2017/08/AR5_Uncertainty_Guidance_Note.pdf . Jul 7, 2010.
  5. When does peer review make no damn sense? https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2016/02/01/peer-review-make-no-damn-sense/ . Feb 1, 2016.
  6. The unreasonable effectiveness of just showing up everyday. Kishore Nallan. https://typesense.org/blog/the-unreasonable-effectiveness-of-just-showing-up-everyday/ . https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27833064 . Jul 14, 2021. Accessed Jul 14, 2021.
  7. Beware The Man Of One Study. Scott Alexander. https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/12/12/beware-the-man-of-one-study/ . Dec 12, 2014. Accessed Aug 25, 2021.