Sunday, August 20, 2017

How to Read a Research Paper and Extract Problem Statement and Thesis Statement

Based on my experience of research supervision since 2002, I can safely say that if you do not know how to read a technical research paper and from it identify the problem statement and thesis statement and write them in a convincing readable manner then it would be difficult for you to complete your MS/PhD thesis. I strongly urge my research students to understand this process. This would help you to articulate the problem statement and the thesis statement of your MS/PhD research. These two statements define the scope of your research and also serve as the bulwark of your eventual defense in front of the thesis evaluation committees.

Why Read Research Papers

The objective of MS/PhD is to make you a member of research community active in your chosen area of research. Research community consists of the authors of research papers being presented at conferences and published in journals of your chosen area of research. Membership of the research community requires the following:
  • You know the prominent conferences and journals of your chosen area. 
  • You read and understand the research papers published and cited by the conferences and journals of your chosen research area
  • You write research papers that are presented and published in conferences and journals. 
  • You attend the conferences
  • You understand in depth the highly cited papers and seminal papers in your research area
See also: Why PhD? See also: How to Select an MPhil/PhD Research Topic

How to Read a Research Paper

Are you able to identify the following in a research paper?
Please don’t be daunted by a research paper. First few papers are toughest. However, as you continue to read them you will discover that not every thing written in a research paper is worth understanding during your first pass. Some parts of the paper are essential to digest from every paper. Other parts may require in-depth reading depending upon what your direction of research demands.
Seek help if you are having difficulty understanding a paper. The strategy for reading a research paper is as follows:
  • Initially focus on just a few key areas:
    • Focus on what is the problem they are trying to solve.
    • Focus on what literature survey they have done regarding work done by others in the field. How is their work related to others?
    • Focus on the thesis statement. How they have taken a particular position. How does it make their work distinctive?
    • Focus on what is the uniqueness/distinctiveness of their approach. How is the work original?
  • Try all the time when you are reading, as to how to place this paper in the overall framework of the area. The objective of going over related literature is to develop this framework. 
  • Not every thing in a research paper needs to be understood completed. It suffices to note that such a discussion has taken place.
    • Many a times authors spend a lot of time explaining or justifying a particular line of reasoning, selection of a particular methodology, set up of the experiment, calibration of the equipment, clarifying the assumptions, and setting up the mechanism.
    • It is not necessary to understand all of this detailed reasoning.
    • This understanding is required only if you are repeating the experiment and want to duplicate the results, or you are planning to take a similar approach.

1.1 How to Identify a Problem Statement?

Students often have difficulty in writing the "problem statement" for the selected paper. Remember problem statement is a "single" statement. If you can not identify the problem a paper is trying to solve, you have not understood why the paper was written. Problem statement is the reason of existence of that research paper. Eventually for your MPhil/PhD research proposal you will be struggling to compose the problem statement of your proposed research.
  • If you have not read What is a Problem Statement and its role in MS-PhD Research , I can assure you that you will have a great difficulty defending your thesis because you may not be able to convince the examiners that your problem was worth researching. 
  • If a paper fails to make the reader understand what is the problem statement, that paper needs to be discarded because it has failed to justify its existence (ontology). 
  • Some times, a paper focuses more on the research objectives than on the problem they are solving. A research objective is useful in explaining the direction of research or a particular position paper. But, it is not a stand on which your defense of your thesis can stand. Your thesis stands on the gaps that you have identified. You must take a stand on those gaps. The stand tht you take for defense purpose is called the problem statement. 
  • A research objective will not convince an MS or a PhD defense committee, unless the problem is so obvious that it does not need explaining, and there is no preexisting work on that problem. I would be really interested in finding about those problems. 

How to Identify a Thesis Statement?

If you can not write the thesis statement of a research paper, you have not understood the paper. The challenge is to write it in one single sentence. It is easy to write paragraphs. However, it is extremely difficult to write in one sentence what would capture the essence of a research paper which may have taken several years to write. 
  • "First, do you understand the difference between a dissertation and a thesis? A thesis is an idea. A dissertation is a document that supports your thesis. After you write your dissertation explaining why your thesis is a good one, you have to stand up in front of a crowd and defend it -- the thesis defense.
It is best if you can capture your thesis in a single sentence. If you can do this, make it sentence #1 of your dissertation, and repeat this sentence, word for word, wherever you need to drive home the point of your dissertation. This is a tremendous aid in focusing your work. A side benefit is that it provides an unassailable defense to an entire class of attacks on your work. For example, should someone attack your work by pointing out that it does not scale, you simply reply,
You may be correct, but right or wrong, your point is irrelevant. My thesis is that "crossbreeding gerbils with hamsters provides an order of magnitude speedup over standard treadmill technology." I clearly demonstrate factors of 12-17 in my dissertation; I make no claims beyond an order of magnitude.
This is one of the benefits of focus. " [ From Dissertation Advice by Olin Shivers – what is a thesis statement”]
Key ideas in a thesis statement are:
  • Thesis statement takes a stand about how the problem statement would be solved and what would be the benefit(s), and/or improvements.
  • It makes an assertion that can be refuted. A falsifiable assertion. 
  • It sets out the direction where contribution would be made to the body of research.
  • The contribution is typically the "new" system, algorithm, model, framework, relationship, process, flow, or instrument developed by the researcher for solving the problem as given in the problem statement. 
  • Significance is the relief or benefit from the contribution. 

State of the Art in the Literature Review

What is the Approach/Methodology

  • Typically approach is a key idea on which you have constructed your entire proof or demo or prototype or your solution.
  • Approach is the particular mechanism, strategy, design, model, simulation, some thing that solves or helps in solving the problem/issue/concern/shortcoming i.e. the problem as identified above.
  • There are quantitative and qualitative methodologies. These may include construction, action research, experimentation etc.
  • Approach may include one of the following: Algorithm, model, framework, simulation, prototype, method(s), mechanism, survey, demo, derivation, taxonomy, system, or some thing that you have developed to establish your thesis statement. 
  • Using your methodology or approach you demonstrate, prove, establish, and show the validity of your thesis statement. A formal proof is the highest form of analysis that you can employ to establish your thesis statement. A demo or a prototype or a developed system is a demonstration that does “not” prove your thesis statement but only establishes it and gives it some authenticity. A survey leads to a statistical substantiation of your thesis statement. 
  • Alternative Approaches and methodologies
See also: Discerning the Forest from the Trees - The Insights from my PhD Supervisor JC Browne

What is an Open Problem or Gap

Open Problems are those that are currently unsolved. They may include problems for which various researchers are proposing solutions but a consensus on the best solution has not been arrived.

Typically these problems are mentioned in the introduction or in the future work section of a paper. They outline areas in which more work is required or the problems that are still unsolved in the selected area of research.
Examples, the need for enhancing the presented model or framework, the need for exploring some new relationships, the need for measuring certain new concepts by defining them as variables, need for integration, etc. 

How To Write A Dissertation  

[Copied from cs.purdue.edu]

  1. A thesis is a hypothesis or conjecture.
  2. A PhD dissertation is a lengthy, formal document that argues in defense of a particular thesis. (So many people use the term ``thesis'' to refer to the document that a current dictionary now includes it as the third meaning of ``thesis'').
  3. Two important adjectives used to describe a dissertation are ``original'' and ``substantial.'' The research performed to support a thesis must be both, and the dissertation must show it to be so. In particular, a dissertation highlights original contributions.
  4. The scientific method means starting with a hypothesis and then collecting evidence to support or deny it. Before one can write a dissertation defending a particular thesis, one must collect evidence that supports it. Thus, the most difficult aspect of writing a dissertation consists of organizing the evidence and associated discussions into a coherent form.
  5. The essence of a dissertation is critical thinking, not experimental data. Analysis and concepts form the heart of the work.
  6. A dissertation concentrates on principles: it states the lessons learned, and not merely the facts behind them.
  7. In general, every statement in a dissertation must be supported either by a reference to published scientific literature or by original work. Moreover, a dissertation does not repeat the details of critical thinking and analysis found in published sources; it uses the results as fact and refers the reader to the source for further details.
  8. Each sentence in a dissertation must be complete and correct in a grammatical sense. Moreover, a dissertation must satisfy the stringent rules of formal grammar (e.g., no contractions, no colloquialisms, no slurs, no undefined technical jargon, no hidden jokes, and no slang, even when such terms or phrases are in common use in the spoken language). Indeed, the writing in a dissertaton must be crystal clear. Shades of meaning matter; the terminology and prose must make fine distinctions. The words must convey exactly the meaning intended, nothing more and nothing less.
  9. Each statement in a dissertation must be correct and defensible in a logical and scientific sense. Moreover, the discussions in a dissertation must satisfy the most stringent rules of logic applied to mathematics and science.

See also: 

What is PhD?
Why PhD is Difficult: 
Starting with your PhD
Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD

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