How to Present a Seminar Paper

CS 598, Internet Telephony

A seminar’s objective is become familair with an area by reading a large handful (ten to twenty) of papers in the area. The papers usually report current work in the area, but may also include the occasional important foundation or high-quality overview paper.

Papers* are presented regularly, with presentation rotating among members of the seminar. Everybody reads each paper outside the seminar; the presenter leads the discussion about the paper at the seminar. Ideally, the presentation is a discussion about the paper among all seminar members with the presenter acting as the moderator.

In addition to being the moderator, the presenter also should be an expert, historian and critic. The presenter as expert stands-in for the paper’s authors during the discussion. Questions and clarifications that come up during discussion should be handled by the presenter. The presenter as a historian describes the context and importance of the paper in the area. This role expands on the paper’s prior-work section (or adds one if the paper doesn’t have one) to include the paper’s context in the larger area (sometimes a paper’s introduction or conclusion will have a paragraph or two on the larger context). The presenter as a critic offers opinions and speculations about the paper’s quality and importance. Although offering opinions and speculations, the presenter should ground them in good arguments backed by data.

The participants determine how the seminar is run. I favor informal seminars having a bunch of people around a table talking about a paper; the presenter is unobtrusively guiding things along. The other extreme is a lecture-like seminar with one person in the front of the room and everybody else trying to pay attention. As a practical matter, a seminar will usually be between the extremes. For example, the presenter may start with the floor as the historian, giving the paper’s background. Once done, the presenter as expert joins the discussion about the paper. When the discussion winds down (or has gone on long enough) the presenter regains the floor as the critic to lead a discussion about the paper’s importance.

Here are some guidelines for presenting a seminar paper. As a historian:

As an expert:

As a critic:

*There is a subtle but important point about the phrase “the paper”. Although this note uses it throughout, the phrase “the paper” should, for the most part, be interpreted as referring to the work reported by the paper, not to the paper itself. For example, criticism of the paper should be referring to the work reported and not to whether or not the paragraphs are too long or the citations are in the right format. However, this is not to say that the paper itself should be ignored completely. For example, well written papers should always be praised (and analyzed to determine why they're well written) or papers believed to be important but not cited should be noted.

This page last modified on 17 July 2008.