I am having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around papers for my distributed systems class. I and two partners have to write a research paper, and we must cite around 20 research papers for the paper in our bibliography and also use them as a jumping off point for our material.

I am a computer-science student. I see a lot of stuff in the paper about discrete mathematics, and algorithms. I took a discrete mathematics class, however I have forgotten much of it by now, and I don’t know if I was too competent after leaving the class. I did well, but I don’t know how to apply outside of problems. I am new to distributed systems as well. Everything in the papers are so overwhelming.


I am so used to thinking, speaking, and seeing things in vernacular. There’s so much jargon in these papers that I feel like I am reading a different language and I am so lost. I will read through multiple paragraphs or sentences and just not comprehend a thing. I don’t know how to grasp the main points from the abstracts and then pull those out of the rest of the paper.

How can I deal with this?

  • 3
    Distributed systems? Just wait until you get to paxos.
    – Mike A.
    Oct 5, 2015 at 0:20

2 Answers 2

  1. Ask your professor for help. That’s what he or she is there for. (But be warned – there may be no way around needing a real understanding of some basics in discrete math and in algorithms.)

  2. When you say you are used to seeing things only in the vernacular, that means you have been getting away with only vaguely understanding them. The jargon isn’t there to make it hard for you; it’s there to make everything precise.

  3. When I have some reason to work on something for which I don’t know the background, I find a collaborator. If I can’t, I give up and find something else to work on. (Of course, this only works if there is something you have background for so that other people will have reasons to collaborate with you. That’s why graduate school takes so long!)

  4. Reading technical material is not like reading a trashy novel. Seriously reading and understanding the details of a paper relevant to my research (in mathematics) takes about two hours per page.

  5. You probably need to make up your own examples and work through some of the papers sentence by sentence, working out how each sentence works out for your examples. Obviously you cannot go into that level of detail for every paper, but not all of them will be equally important to you as starting points.

  • I would also mention: Use wikipedia and similar sources; while they need not be precise and may use the notions slightly differently than the papers you read, you get the idea quickly and easily. The ability to quickly navigate to referred notions is also helpful.
    – yo'
    Oct 5, 2015 at 9:48

I have had the joy of switching fields a few times and faced this each and every time. What worked for me may not work for you, but it's worth a try.

Take notes on the paper. Write down words and phrases you are unfamiliar with, draw interconnected diagrams if necessary. Pursue each and every reference that seems useful, and do the same with those. You'll start to build up an understanding as you do this. Then you'll learn something that knocks everything you built up back down and forces you to rebuild your understanding. This will likely happen again and again.

I tend to do this with highlighters and notes, but I guess more modern folks can use Mendeley and such.

Of course, if you happen to find a book discussing some of these ideas you are interested in, then read that. However, the edge of research is often far beyond the ideas available in a book by the time it is published. So the network of understanding you build up may end up having a few holes in it that you don't even realize are there. That is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast.

But keep at it, put the time in, and it will reward you. I wouldn't focus so much on the "I need 20 references." As that tends to make you insert references inappropriately. Instead, you should be familiar enough with the subject to be able to do so and insert them naturally into the paper. This isn't always possible for folks working on the edge of very small and/or very new fields, but you do the best that you can.

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