The Academic Paper Edition

On research, untapped gems, and pain as the process

Noah here. I like to think of myself as a researcher. Since I was a kid I have found a fair amount of joy in pulling a string to the end. When I fall down a research rabbit hole, it’s not a casual thing—I get completely obsessed about understanding whatever it is I’m after. In some ways, though, it’s all just chasing a feeling. Following that path and tasting that satisfaction of conclusion, just makes you want more. It doesn’t need to be consequential—feeling like I got to the bottom of where 2x2s came from isn’t really going to change the world—but knowing that I found something new and that I had the instincts to detect when the pieces weren’t fitting together quite right, is where the fun is for me.

Part of that interest leaves me reading academic papers pretty often. While they’re hardly ever the most exciting thing I’ve read that day, there are huge amounts of research that are condensed into those pages and can’t be extracted any other way. Although the world of academia obviously spends a lot of time and attention on these papers, I think they’re actually a fairly untapped gem for the wider world. In parts of marketing and tech, for instance, I’ve often felt that the orientation towards application actually causes folks to discount what they might be able to learn reading the work of research and academics.

Screenshot from Librarian, a Chrome extension for arXiv from Fermat’s Library

Why is this interesting? 

I was recently listening to an interview with Luís and João Batalha, the co-founders of Fermat’s Library. Fermat’s Library aims is essentially trying to spread knowledge further by helping more people understand and discuss academic papers. I have far less practice than these guys, so my ears perked up when they were asked how they approach reading complicated papers. (Transcript edited slightly for clarity.)

I think a lot of times people might feel discouraged about the first time you read it—it's very hard to grasp, or you don't understand a huge fraction of the paper. And I think, having read a lot of papers in my life, I think I've found peace with the fact that you might spend hours where you're just reading a paper and jumping from paper to paper, reading citations, and your level of understanding of the paper is very close to 0%. And all of a sudden, everything kind of makes sense. And in your mind, you have this quantum jump, where all of a sudden, you understand the big picture of the paper. This is an exercise that I have to do when reading papers, especially more complex papers—“okay, you don't understand because you're just going through the process and just keep going. Indeed, it might feel super chaotic, especially if you're jumping from reference to reference—you might end up with like, 20 tabs open and you're reading a ton of other papers. But just trusting that process, that at the end you'll find light. And I think for me, that's a good framework when reading a paper. It's hard, because you know, we might end up spending a lot of time and it looks like you're lost. But that's the process to actually understand what they're talking about in the paper.

There are a few interesting bits here for me. One is just the description of the feeling—he calls it “the quantum jump”—when the pieces fall into place and you understand. Related to that, there’s the instinct to understand when that’s happened and when it hasn’t. I was talking to a friend recently about the idea of “information heuristics” and how when you’ve spent a lot of time doing research you pick up some ideas about how to make it work that are often hard to describe to others. You might not know why you followed that link or trusted that source, but something told you it was right. Finally, there’s the way he talks about the overall process. The funny thing about the description of his paper-reading process is that, in a way, it describes how I feel about almost any creative endeavor. It hurts until it doesn’t, at which point you realize the pain was the process. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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