Deep Learning on Graphs: A Survey

by   Ziwei Zhang, et al.
Tsinghua University

Deep learning has been shown successful in a number of domains, ranging from acoustics, images to natural language processing. However, applying deep learning to the ubiquitous graph data is non-trivial because of the unique characteristics of graphs. Recently, a significant amount of research efforts have been devoted to this area, greatly advancing graph analyzing techniques. In this survey, we comprehensively review different kinds of deep learning methods applied to graphs. We divide existing methods into three main categories: semi-supervised methods including Graph Neural Networks and Graph Convolutional Networks, unsupervised methods including Graph Autoencoders, and recent advancements including Graph Recurrent Neural Networks and Graph Reinforcement Learning. We then provide a comprehensive overview of these methods in a systematic manner following their history of developments. We also analyze the differences of these methods and how to composite different architectures. Finally, we briefly outline their applications and discuss potential future directions.


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1 Introduction

In the last decade, deep learning has been a “crown jewel” in artificial intelligence and machine learning

[1], showing superior performance in acoustics [2], images [3] and natural language processing [4]. The expressive power of deep learning to extract complex patterns underlying data has been well recognized. On the other hand, graphs111Graphs are also called networks such as in social networks. In this paper, we use two terms interchangeably. are ubiquitous in the real world, representing objects and their relationships such as social networks, e-commerce networks, biology networks and traffic networks. Graphs are also known to have complicated structures which contain rich underlying value [5]. As a result, how to utilize deep learning methods for graph data analysis has attracted considerable research attention in the past few years. This problem is non-trivial because several challenges exist for applying traditional deep learning architectures to graphs:

  • Irregular domain. Unlike images, audio and text which have a clear grid structure, graphs lie in an irregular domain, making it hard to generalize some basic mathematical operations to graphs [6]

    . For example, it is not straight-forward to define convolution and pooling operation for graph data, which are the fundamental operations in Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs). This is often referred as the geometric deep learning problem


  • Varying structures and tasks. Graph itself can be complicated with diverse structures. For example, graphs can be heterogenous or homogenous, weighted or unweighted, and signed or unsigned. In addition, the tasks for graphs also vary greatly, ranging from node-focused problems such as node classification and link prediction, to graph-focused problems such as graph classification and graph generation. The varying structures and tasks require different model architectures to tackle specific problems.

  • Scalability and parallelization. In the big-data era, real graphs can easily have millions of nodes and edges, such as social networks or e-commerce networks [8]. As a result, how to design scalable models, preferably with a linear time complexity, becomes a key problem. In addition, since nodes and edges in the graph are interconnected and often need to be modeled as a whole, how to conduct parallel computing is another critical issue.

  • Interdiscipline. Graphs are often connected with other disciplines, such as biology, chemistry or social sciences. The interdiscipline provides both opportunities and challenges: domain knowledge can be leveraged to solve specific problems, but integrating domain knowledge could make designing the model more difficult. For example, in generating molecular graphs, the objective function and chemical constraints are often non-differentiable, so gradient based training methods cannot be easily applied.

To tackle these challenges, tremendous effort has been made towards this area, resulting in a rich literature of related papers and methods. The architecture adopted also varies greatly, ranging from supervised to unsupervised, convolutional to recursive. However, to the best of our knowledge, little effort has been made to systematically summarize the differences and connections between these diverse methods.

In this paper, we try to fill this gap by comprehensive reviewing deep learning methods on graphs. Specifically, as shown in Figure 1, we divide the existing methods into three main categories: semi-supervised methods, unsupervised methods and recent advancements. Concretely speaking, semi-supervised methods include Graph Neural Networks (GNNs) and Graph Convolutional Networks (GCNs), unsupervised methods are mainly composed of Graph Autoencoders (GAEs) and recent advancements include Graph Recurrent Neural Networks and Graph Reinforcement Learning. We summarize some main distinctions of these categories in Table I. Broadly speaking, GNNs and GCNs are semi-supervised as they utilize node attributes and node labels to train model parameters end-to-end for a specific task, while GAEs mainly focus on learning representation using unsupervised methods. Recently advanced methods use other unique algorithms that do not fall in previous categories. Besides these high-level distinctions, the model architectures also differ greatly. In the following sections, we will provide a comprehensive overview of these methods in detail, mainly following their history of developments and how these methods solve challenges of graphs. We also analyze the differences of these models and how to composite different architectures. In the end, we briefly outline the applications of these methods and discuss potential future directions.

Fig. 1: The categorization of deep learning methods on graphs. We divide existing methods into three categories: semi-supervised, unsupervised and recent advancements. The semi-supervised methods can be further divided into Graph Neural Networks and Graph Convolutional Networks based on their architectures. Recent advancements include Graph Recurrent Neural Networks and Graph Reinforcement Learning methods.
Category Type Node Attributes/Labels Counterparts in Traditional Domains
Graph Neural Networks Semi-supervised Yes Recursive Neural Networks
Graph Convolutional Networks Semi-supervised Yes Convolutional Neural Networks
Graph Autoencoders Unsupervised Partial Autoencoders/Variational Autoencoders
Graph Recurrent Neural Networks Various Partial Recurrent Neural Networks
Graph Reinforcement Learning Semi-supervised Yes Reinforcement Learning
TABLE I: Some Main Distinctions of Deep Learning Methods on Graphs

Related works. There are several surveys that are related to our paper. Bronstein et al. [7] summarize some early GCN methods as well as CNNs on manifolds, and study them comprehensively through geometric deep learning. Recently, Battaglia et al. [9] summarize how to use GNNs and GCNs for relational reasoning using a unified framework called graph networks and Lee et al. [10]

review the attention models for graphs. We differ from these works in that we systematically and comprehensively review different deep learning architectures on graphs rather than focusing on one specific branch. Another closely related topic is network embedding, trying to embed nodes into a low-dimensional vector space

[11, 12, 13]. The main distinction between network embedding and our paper is that we focus on how different deep learning models can be applied to graphs, and network embedding can be recognized as a concrete example using some of these models (they use non deep learning methods as well).

The rest of this paper is organized as follows. In Section 2, we introduce notations and preliminaries. Then, we review GNNs, GCNs, GAEs and recent advancements in Section 3 to Section 6 respectively. We conclude with a discussion in Section 7.

2 Notations and Preliminaries

Notations. In this paper, a graph is represented as where is a set of nodes and is a set of edges between nodes. We use to denote the adjacency matrix, where its row, column and an element denoted as , respectively. The graph can be directed/undirected and weighted/unweighted. We mainly consider unsigned graphs, so . Signed graphs will be discussed in the last section. We use and to denote features for nodes and edges respectively. For other variables, we use bold uppercase characters to denote matrices and bold lowercase characters to denote vectors, e.g. and . The transpose of matrix is denoted as and element-wise product is denoted as . Functions are marked by curlicue, e.g. .

A graph
The number of nodes and edges
The set of nodes
Attributes/features for nodes and edges
The adjacency matrix
The diagonal degree matrix
The Laplacian matrix
The eigen-decomposition of
The transition matrix
k-step and 1-step neighbors of

The hidden representation of

The number of dimensions of
Some non-linear activation
Element-wise product
Learnable parameters
TABLE II: Table of Commonly Used Notations

Preliminaries. For an undirected graph, its Laplacian matrix is defined as , where is a diagonal degree matrix . Its eigen-decomposition is denoted as , where

is a diagonal matrix of eigenvalues sorted in ascending order and

are the corresponding eigenvectors. The transition matrix is defined as

, where

represents the probability of a random walk starting from node

lands at node . The k-step neighbors of node are defined as , where is the shortest distance from node to , i.e. is a set of nodes reachable from node within k-steps. To simplify notations, we drop the subscript for the immediate neighborhood, i.e. .

For a deep learning model, we use superscripts to denote layers, e.g. . We use to denote the number of dimensions in layer

. The sigmoid activation function is defined as

and rectifier linear unit (ReLU) is defined as

. A general element-wise non-linear activation function is denoted as . In this paper, unless stated otherwise, we assume all functions are differentiable so that we can learn model parameters through back-propagation [14] using commonly adopted optimizers, such as Adam [15], and training techniques, such as dropout [16]. We summarize the notations in Table II.

The tasks for learning deep model on graphs can be broadly categorized into two domains:

  • Node-focused tasks: the tasks are associated with individual nodes in the graph. Examples include node classification, link prediction and node recommendation.

  • Graph-focused tasks

    : the tasks are associated with the whole graph. Examples includes graph classification, estimating certain properties of the graph or generating graphs.

Note that such distinction is more conceptually than mathematically rigorous. On the one hand, there exist tasks associated with mesoscopic structures such as community detection [17]. In addition, node-focused problems can sometimes be studied as graph-focused problems by transforming the former into ego-centric networks [18]. Nevertheless, we will detail the distinction between these two categories when necessary.

3 Graph Neural Networks (GNNs)

In this section, we review the most primitive semi-supervised deep learning methods for graph data, Graph Neural Networks (GNNs).

The origin of GNNs can be dated back to the ”pre-deep-learning” era [19, 20]. The idea of GNN is simple: to encode structural information of the graph, each node can be represented by a low-dimensional state vector . Motivated by recursive neural networks [21], a recursive definition of states is adopted [20]:


where is a parametric function to be learned. After getting , another parametric function is applied for the final outputs:


For graph-focused tasks, the authors suggest adding a special node with unique attributes corresponding to the whole graph. To learn model parameters, the following semi-supervised method is adopted: after iteratively solving Eq. (1) to a stable point using Jacobi method [22], one step of gradient descend is performed using the Almeida-Pineda algorithm [23, 24] to minimize a task-specific objective function, for example, the square loss between predicted values and the ground-truth for regression tasks; then, this process is repeated until convergence.

With two simple equations in Eqs. (1)(2

), GNN plays two important roles. In retrospect, GNN unifies some early methods in processing graph data, such as recursive neural networks and Markov chains

[20]. Looking to the future, the concept in GNN has profound inspirations: as will be shown later, many state-of-the-art GCNs actually have a similar formulation as Eq. (1), following the framework of exchanging information with immediate neighborhoods. In fact, GNNs and GCNs can be unified into a common framework and GNN is equivalent to GCN using identical layers to reach a stable state. More discussion will be given in Section 4.

Though conceptually important, GNN has several drawbacks. First, to ensure that Eq. (1) has a unique solution, has to be a “contraction map” [25], which severely limits the modeling ability. Second, since many iterations are needed between gradient descend steps, GNN is computationally expensive. Because of these drawbacks and perhaps the lack of computational power (e.g. Graphic Processing Unit, GPU, is not widely used for deep learning those days) and lack of research interests, GNN was not widely known to the community.

A notable improvement to GNN is Gated Graph Sequence Neural Networks (GGS-NNs) [26] with several modifications. Most importantly, the authors replace the recursive definition of Eq. (1

) with Gated Recurrent Units (GRU)

[27], thus remove the requirement of “contraction map” and support the usage of modern optimization techniques. Specifically, Eq. (1) is replaced by:


where are calculated by update gates, are candidates for updating and is the pseudo time. Secondly, the authors propose using several such networks operating in sequence to produce a sequence output, which can be applied to applications such as program verification [28].

GNN and its extensions have many applications. For example, CommNet [29] applies GNN to learn multi-agent communication in AI systems by regarding each agent as a node and updating the states of agents by communication with others for several time steps before taking an action. Interaction Network (IN) [30] uses GNN for physical reasoning by representing objects as nodes, relations as edges and using pseudo-time as a simulation system. VAIN [31] improves CommNet and IN by introducing attentions to weigh different interactions. Relation Networks (RNs) [32] propose using GNN as a relational reasoning module to augment other neural networks and show promising results in visual question answering problems.

4 Graph Convolutional Networks (GCNs)

Method Type Convolution Readout Scalability Multiple Graphs Other Improvements
Bruna et al. [33] Spectral Interpolation Kernel Hierarchical Clustering + FC No No -
Henaff et al. [34] Spectral Interpolation Kernel Hierarchical Clustering + FC No No Constructing Graph
ChebNet [35] Spatial Polynomial Hierarchical Clustering Yes Yes -
Kipf&Welling [36] Spatial First-order - Yes - Residual Connection
Neural FPs [37] Spatial First-order Sum No Yes -
PATCHY-SAN [38] Spatial Polynomial + Order Order + Pooling Yes Yes Order for Nodes
DCNN [39] Spatial Polynomial Diffusion Mean No Yes Edge Features
DGCN [40] Spatial First-order + Diffusion - No - -
MPNNs [41] Spatial First-order Set2set No Yes General Framework
GraphSAGE [42] Spatial First-order + Sampling - Yes - General Framework
MoNet [43] Spatial First-order Hierarchical Clustering Yes Yes General Framework
GNs [9] Spatial First-order Whole Graph Representation Yes Yes General Framework
DiffPool[44] Spatial Various Hierarchical Clustering No Yes Differentiable Pooling
GATs [45] Spatial First-order - Yes Yes Attention
CLN [46] Spatial First-order - Yes - Residual Connection
JK-Nets [47] Spatial Various - Yes Yes Jumping Connection
ECC [48] Spatial First-order Hierarchical Clustering Yes Yes Edge Features
R-GCNs [49] Spatial First-order - Yes - Edge Features
Kearnes et al. [50] Spatial Weave module Fuzzy Histogram Yes Yes Edge Features
PinSage [51] Spatial Random Walk - Yes - -
FastGCN [52] Spatial First-order + Sampling - Yes Yes Inductive Setting
Chen et al. [53] Spatial First-order + Sampling - Yes - -
TABLE III: Comparison of Different Graph Convolutional Networks (GCNs)

Besides GNNs, Graph Convolutional Networks (GCNs) are another class of semi-supervised methods for graphs. Since GCNs usually can be trained with task-specific loss via back-propagation like standard CNNs, we focus on the architectures adopted. We will first discuss the convolution operations, then move to the readout operations and improvements. We summarize main characteristics of GCNs surveyed in this paper in Table III.

4.1 Convolution Operations

4.1.1 Spectral Methods

For CNNs, convolution is the most fundamental operation. However, standard convolution for image or text can not be directly applied to graphs because of the lack of a grid structure [6]. Bruna et al. [33] first introduce convolution for graph data from spectral domain using the graph Laplacian matrix [54], which plays a similar role as the Fourier basis for signal processing [6]. Specifically, the convolution operation on graph is defined as:


where are two signals defined on nodes and are eigenvectors of . Then, using the convolution theorem, filtering a signal can be obtained as:


where is the output signal, is a diagonal matrix of learnable filters and are eigenvalues of . Then, a convolutional layer is defined by applying different filters to different input and output signals as follows:


where is the layer, is the hidden representation for nodes in the layer, are learnable filters. The idea of Eq. (6

) is similar to conventional convolutions: passing the input signals through a set of learnable filters to aggregate the information, followed by some non-linear transformation. By using nodes features

as the input layer and stacking multiple convolutional layers, the overall architecture is similar to CNNs. Theoretical analysis shows that such definition of convolution operation on graphs can mimic certain geometric properties of CNNs, which we refer readers to [7] for a comprehensive survey.

However, directly using Eq. (6) requires parameters to be learned, which may not be feasible in practice. In addition, the filters in spectral domain may not be localized in the spatial domain. To alleviate these problems, Bruna et al. [33] suggest using the following smooth filters:


where is a fixed interpolation kernel and are learnable interpolation coefficients. The authors also generalize this idea to the setting where the graph is not given but constructed from some raw features using either a supervised or an unsupervised method [34]. However, two fundamental limitations remain unsolved. First, since the full eigenvectors of the Laplacian matrix are needed during each calculation, the time complexity is at least per forward and backward pass, which is not scalable to large-scale graphs. Second, since the filters depend on the eigen-basis of the graph, parameters can not be shared across multiple graphs with different sizes and structures.

Next, we review two different lines of works trying to solve these two limitations, and then unify them using some common frameworks.

4.1.2 Efficiency Aspect

To solve the efficiency problem, ChebNet [35] proposes using a polynomial filter as follows:


where are learnable parameters and is the polynomial order. Then, instead of performing the eigen-decomposition, the authors rewrite Eq. (8) using the Chebyshev expansion [55]:


where are the rescaled eigenvalues, is the maximum eigenvalue,

is the identity matrix and

is the Chebyshev polynomial of order . The rescaling is necessary because of the orthonormal basis of Chebyshev polynomials. Using the fact that polynomial of the Laplacian acts as a polynomial of its eigenvectors, the filter operation in Eq. (5) can be rewritten as:


where and . Using the recurrence relation of Chebyshev polynomial and , can also be calculated recursively:


with . Now, since only the matrix product of and some vectors needs to be calculated, the time complexity is , where is the number of edges and is the polynomial order, i.e. linear with respect to the graph size. It is also easy to see that such polynomial filter is strictly -localized: after one convolution, the representation of node will only be affected by its K-step neighborhood . Interestingly, this idea is independently used in network embedding to preserve the high-order proximity [56], of which we omit the details for brevity.

An improvement to ChebNet introduced by Kipf and Welling [36] further simplifies the filtering by only using the first-order neighbors as follows:


where is the hidden representation of node in the layer222We use a different letter because is the hidden representation of one node, while represents a dimension for all nodes., and . This can be written equivalently in the matrix form:


where , i.e. adding a self-connection. The authors show that Eq. (13) is a special case of Eq. (8) by setting with a few minor changes. Then, the authors argue that stacking such layers has a similar modeling capacity as ChebNet and leads to better results. The architecture is illustrated in Figure 2.

Fig. 2: An illustrating example of convolution operation proposed by Kipf & Welling [36]. Reprinted with permission.

An important point of ChebNet and its extension is that they connect the spectral graph convolution with the spatial architecture as in GNNs. Actually, the convolution in Eq. (12) is very similar to the definition of states in GNN in Eq. (1), except the convolution definition replaces the recursive definition. In this aspect, GNN can be regarded as GCN using a large number of identical layers to reach stable states [7].

4.1.3 Multiple Graphs Aspect

In the meantime, a parallel of works focus on generalizing convolution operation to multiple graphs of arbitrary sizes. Neural FPs [37] propose a spatial method also using the first-order neighbors:


Since the parameters can be shared across different graphs and are independent of graph sizes, Neural FPs can handle multiple graphs of arbitrary sizes. Note that Eq. (14) is very similar to Eq. (12). However, instead of considering the influence of node degrees by adding a normalization term, Neural FPs propose learning different parameters for nodes with different degrees. This strategy performs well for small graphs such as the molecular graphs, i.e. atoms as nodes and bonds as edges, but may not be scalable to large-scale graphs.

PATCHY-SAN [38] adopts a different idea to assign a unique order of nodes using the graph labeling procedure such as the Weisfeiler-Lehman kernel [57] and arranges nodes in a line using this pre-defined order. To mimic conventional CNNs, PATCHY-SAN defines a “receptive field” for each node by selecting a fixed number of nodes from their k-step neighborhoods and then adopts standard 1-D CNN with proper normalization. Since now nodes in different graphs all have a “receptive field” with fixed size and order, PATCHY-SAN can learn from multiple graphs like normal CNNs. However, the drawbacks are that the convolution depends heavily on the graph labeling procedure which is a preprocessing step that is not learned, and enforcing a 1-D ordering of nodes may not be a natural choice.

DCNN [39] adopts another approach to replace the eigen-basis of convolution by a diffusion-basis, i.e. the “receptive field” of nodes is determined by the diffusion transition probability between nodes. Specifically, the convolution is defined as:


where is the transition probability of a length diffusion process (i.e. random walk), is a preset diffusion length and is a diagonal matrix of learnable parameters. Since only depend on the graph structure, the parameters can be shared across graphs of arbitrary sizes. However, calculating has the time complexity , thus making the method not scalable to large-scale graphs.

DGCN [40] further proposes to jointly adopt diffusion and adjacency basis using a dual graph convolutional network. Specifically, DGCN uses two convolutions: one as Eq. (13), and the other replaces the adjacency matrix with positive pointwise mutual information (PPMI) matrix [58] of the transition probability, i.e.


where is the PPMI matrix and is the diagonal degree matrix of . Then, two convolutions are ensembled by minimizing the mean square differences between and . A random walk sampling procedure is also proposed to accelerate the calculation of transition probability. Experiments demonstrate that such dual convolutions are effective even for single-graph problems.

4.1.4 Frameworks

Based on above two lines of works, MPNNs [41] propose a unified framework for the graph convolution operation in the spatial domain using a message passing function:


where and are message functions and vertex update functions that need to be learned, and are the “messages” passed between nodes. Conceptually, MPNNs propose a framework that each node sends messages based on its states and updates its states based on messages received from immediate neighbors. The authors show that the above framework includes many previous methods such as [26, 37, 33, 34, 36, 50] as special cases. Besides, the authors propose adding a “master” node that is connected to all nodes to accelerate the passing of messages across long distances and split the hidden representation into different “towers” to improve the generalization ability. The authors show that a specific variant of the MPNNs can achieve state-of-the-art performance on predicting molecular properties.

Concurrently, GraphSAGE [42] takes a similar idea as Eq. (17) with multiple aggregating functions as follows:


where is concatenation and

is the aggregating function. The authors suggest three aggregating functions: element-wise mean, long short-term memory (LSTM)

[59] and pooling as follows:


where and are parameters to be learned and is element-wise maximum. For the LSTM aggregating function, since an ordering of neighbors is needed, the authors adopt the simple random order.

Mixture model network (MoNet) [43] also tries to unify previous works of GCNs as well as CNN for manifolds into a common framework using “template matching”:


where are the pseudo-coordinates of node pair and , is a parametric function to be learned, is the dimension of . In other words, serve as the weighting kernel for combining neighborhoods. Then, MoNet suggests using the Gaussian kernel:


where are mean vectors and are diagonal covariance matrices to be learned. The pseudo-coordinates are set to be degrees as in [36], i.e.


Graph Networks (GNs) [9] recently propose a more general framework for both GCNs and GNNs to learn three set of representations: as representation for nodes, edges and the whole graph respectively. The representations are learned using three aggregation functions and three update functions as follow:


where are corresponding updating functions for nodes, edges and the whole graph respectively and are message-passing functions with superscripts denoting message-passing directions. Compared with MPNNs, GNs introduce edge representations and the whole graph representation, thus making the framework more general.

In summary, the convolution operations have evolved from the spectral domain to the spatial domain and from multi-step neighbors to the immediate neighbors. Currently, gathering information from immediate neighbors like Eq. (13) and following the framework of Eqs. (17) (18) (23) are the most common choices for the graph convolution operation.

4.2 Readout Operations

Using the convolution operations, useful features for nodes can be learned to solve many node-focused tasks. However, to tackle graph-focused tasks, information of nodes need to be aggregated to form a graph-level representation. In literature, this is usually called the readout or graph coarsening operation. This problem is non-trivial because stride convolutions or pooling in conventional CNNs cannot be directly used due to the lack of a grid structure.

Order invariance. A critical requirement for the graph readout operation is that the operation should be invariant to the order of nodes, i.e. if we change the indices of nodes and edges using a bijective function between two vertex sets, representation of the whole graph should not change. For example, whether a drug can treat certain disease should be independent of how the drug is represented as a graph. Note that since this problem is related to the graph isomorphism problem which is known to be NP [60], we can only find a function that is order invariant but not vice versa in polynomial time, i.e. even two graphs are not isomorphism, they may have the same representation.

4.2.1 Statistics

The most basic operations that are order invariant are simple statistics like taking sum, average or max-pooling

[37, 39], i.e.


where is the representation for graph and is the representation of node in the final layer

. However, such first moment statistics may not be representative enough to represent the whole graph.

In [50], the authors suggest considering the distribution of node representations by using fuzzy histograms [61]. The basic idea of fuzzy histograms is to construct several “histogram bins” and then calculate the memberships of to these bins, i.e. regarding representations of nodes as samples and match them to some pre-defined templates, and return concatenation of the final histograms. In this way, nodes with the same sum/average/maximum but with different distributions can be distinguished.

Another commonly used approach to gather information is to add a fully connected (FC) layer as the final layer [33], i.e.


where are parameters of the FC layer. Eq. (25) can be regarded as a weighted sum of combing node-level features. One advantage is that the model can learn different weights for different nodes, at the cost of being unable to guarantee order invariance.

4.2.2 Hierarchical clustering

Rather than a dichotomy between node or graph level structure, graphs are known to exhibit rich hierarchical structures [62], which can be explored by hierarchical clustering methods as shown in Figure 3. For example, a density based agglomerative clustering [63] is used in Bruna et al. [33]

and multi-resolution spectral clustering

[64] is used in Henaff et al. [34]. ChebNet [35] and MoNet [43] adopt Graclus [65], another greedy hierarchical clustering algorithm to merge two nodes at a time, together with a fast pooling method by rearranging the nodes into a balanced binary tree. ECC [48] adopts another hierarchical clustering method by eigen-decomposition [66]. However, these hierarchical clustering methods are all independent of the convolution operation, i.e. can be done as a pre-processing step and not trained end-to-end.

Fig. 3: An example of hierarchical clustering of a graph. Reprinted from [44] with permission.

To solve that problem, DiffPool [44] proposes a differentiable hierarchical clustering algorithm jointly trained with graph convolutions. Specifically, the authors propose learning a soft cluster assignment matrix in each layer using the hidden representations:


where is the cluster assignment matrix, is the number of clusters in layer and is a function to be learned. Then, the node representations and new adjacency matrix for this “coarsened” graph can be obtained by taking average according to as follows:


where is obtained by applying a convolution layer to , i.e. coarsening the graph from nodes to nodes in each layer after the convolution operation. However, since the cluster assignment is soft, the connections between clusters are not sparse and the time complexity of the method is in principle.

4.2.3 Others

Besides aforementioned methods, there are other readout operations worthy discussion.

In GNNs [20], the authors suggest adding a special node that is connected to all nodes to represent the whole graph. Similarly, GNs [9] take the idea of directly learning the representation of the whole graph by receiving messages from all nodes and edges.

MPNNs adopt set2set [67], a modification of seq2seq model that is invariant to the order of inputs. Specifically, set2set uses a Read-Process-and-Write model that receives all inputs at once, computes internal memories using attention mechanism and LSTM, and then writes the outputs.

As mentioned earlier, PATCHY-SAN [38] takes the idea of imposing an order of nodes using a graph labeling procedure and then resorts to standard 1-D pooling as in CNNs. Whether such method can preserve order invariance depends on the graph labeling procedure, which is another research field that is beyond the scope of this paper [68]. However, imposing an order for nodes may not be a natural choice for gathering node information and could hinder the performance of downstream tasks.

In short, statistics like taking average or sum are most simple readout operations, while hierarchical clustering algorithm jointly trained with graph convolutions is more advanced but sophisticated solution. For specific problems, other methods exist as well.

4.3 Improvements and Discussions

4.3.1 Attention Mechanism

In previous GCNs, the neighborhoods of nodes are combined with equal or pre-defined weights. However, the influence of neighbors can vary greatly, which should better be learned during training than pre-determined. Inspired by the attention mechanism [69], Graph Attention Networks (GATs) [45] introduce attentions into GCNs by modifying the convolution in Eq (12) as follows:


where is the attention defined as:


where is another function to be learned such as a small fully connected network. The authors also suggest using multiply independent attentions and concatenating the results, i.e. the multi-head attention in [69], as illustrated in Figure 4.

Fig. 4: An illustration of multi-head attentions proposed in GATs [45] where each color denotes an independent attention. Reprinted with permission.

4.3.2 Residual and Jumping Connections

Similar to ResNet [70], residual connections can be added into existing GCNs to skip certain layers. For example, Kipf & Welling [36] add residual connections into Eq. (13) as follows:


They show experimentally that adding such residual connections can increase the depth of the network, i.e. number of convolution layers in GCNs, which is similar to the results of ResNet.

Column Network (CLN) [46] takes a similar idea using the following residual connections with learnable weights:


where is calculated similar to Eq. (13) and are weights calculated as follows:


where are some parameters to be learned. Note that Eq. (31) is very similar to the GRU as in GGS-NNs [26], but the overall architecture is based on convolutional layers instead of pseudo time.

Jumping Knowledge Networks (JK-Nets) [47] propose another architecture to connect the last layer of the network with all previous hidden layers, i.e. “jumping” all representations to the final output as illustrated in Figure 5. In this way, the model can learn to selectively exploit information from different localities. Formally, JK-Nets can be formulated as:


where is final representation for node , AGGREGATE is the aggregating function and is the number of hidden layers. JK-Nets use three aggregating functions similar to GraphSAGE [42]: concatenation, max-pooling and LSTM attention. Experimental results show that adding jumping connections can improve the performance of multiple GCN architectures.

Fig. 5: Jumping Knowledge Networks proposed in [47] where the last layer is connected to all hidden layers to selectively exploit information from different localities. Reprinted with permission.

4.3.3 Edge Features

Previous GCNs mostly focus on utilizing node features. Another important source of information is the edge features, which we briefly discuss in this section.

For simple edge features with discrete values, such as edge types, a straight-forward method is to train different parameters for different edge types and aggregate the results. For example, Neural FPs [37] train different parameters for nodes with different degrees, which corresponds to the hidden edge feature of bond types in a molecular graph, and sum over the results. CLN [46] trains different parameters for different types of edges in a heterogenous graph and average the results. Edge-Conditioned Convolution (ECC) [48] also trains different parameters based on edge types and applies it to graph classification. Relational GCNs (R-GCNs) [49]

take a similar idea in knowledge graphs by training different weights for different relation types. However, these methods can only handle limited discrete edge features.

DCNN [39] proposes another method to convert each edge into a node connected to the head and tail node of the edge. Then, edge features can be treated as node features.

Kearnes et al. [50] propose another architecture using the “weave module”. Specifically, they learn representations for both nodes and edges and exchange information between them in each weave module with four different functions: Node-to-Node (NN), Node-to-Edge (NE), Edge-to-Edge (EE) and Edge-to-Node (EN):


where are representations for edge in the layer and are learnable functions with subscripts representing message passing directions. By stacking multiple such modules, information can propagate through alternative passing between nodes and edges representations. Note that in Node-to-Node and Edge-to-Edge functions, jumping connections similar to JK-Nets [47] are implicitly added. Graph Networks [9] also propose learning edge representation and update both nodes and edges representations using message passing functions as discussed in Section 4.1, which contain the “weave module” as a special case.

4.3.4 Accelerating by Sampling

One critical bottleneck of training GCNs for large-scale graphs is the efficiency problem. In this section, we review some acceleration methods for GCN.

As shown previously, many GCNs follow the framework of aggregating information from neighborhoods. However, since many real graphs follow the power-law distribution [71], i.e. few nodes have very large degrees, the expansion of neighbors can grow extremely fast. To deal with this problem, GraphSAGE [42] uniformly samples a fixed number of neighbors for each node during training. PinSage [51] further proposes sampling neighbors using random walks on graphs together with several implementation improvements, e.g. coordination between CPU and GPU, a map-reduce inference pipeline, etc. PinSage is shown to be working well in a real billion-scale graph.

FastGCN [52] adopts a different sampling strategy. Instead of sampling neighbors of each node, the authors suggest sampling nodes in each convolutional layer by interpreting nodes as i.i.d. samples and graph convolutions as integral transforms under probability measures as shown in Figure 6

. FastGCN also shows that sampling nodes via their normalized degrees can reduce variance and lead to better performance.

Chen et al. [53] further propose another sampling method to reduce variance. Specifically, historical activations of nodes are used as a control variate, which allows for arbitrarily small sample sizes. The authors also prove this method has theoretical guarantee and outperforms existing acceleration methods in experiments.

Fig. 6: Node sampling method of FastGCN reprinted from [52] with permission. FastGCN interprets graph convolutions as integral transforms and samples nodes in each convolutional layer.

4.3.5 Inductive Setting

Another important aspect of GCNs is applying to the inductive setting, i.e. training on a set of nodes/graphs and testing on another set of nodes/graphs unseen during training. In principle, this is achieved by learning a mapping function on the given features, which are not dependent on the graph basis and can be transferred across nodes/graphs. The inductive setting is verified in GraphSAGE [42], GATs [45] and FastGCN [52]. However, existing inductive GCNs are only suitable for graphs with features. How to conduct inductive learning for graphs without features, usually called the out-of-sample problem [72], largely remains open in the literature.

4.3.6 Random Weights

GCNs with random weights are also an interesting research direction, similar to the case of general neural networks [73]. For example, Neural FPs [37] with large random weights are shown to have similar performance as circular fingerprints, some handcrafted features for molecules with hash indexing. Kipf and Welling [36] also show that untrained GCNs can extract certain meaningful node features. However, a general understanding of GCNs with random weights remain unexplored.

5 Graph Autoencoders (GAEs)

Autoencoder (AE) and its variations are widely used for unsupervised learning

[74], which are suitable to learn node representations for graphs without supervised information. In this section, we will first introduce graph autoencoders and then move to graph variational autoencoders and other improvements. Main characteristics of GAEs surveyed are summarized in Table IV.

Method Type Objective Scalability Node Features Other Improvements
SAE [75] AE L2-Reconstruction Yes No -
SDNE [76] AE L2-Reconstruction + Laplacian Eigenmaps Yes No -
DNGR [77] AE L2-Reconstruction No No -
GC-MC [78] AE L2-Reconstruction Yes Yes Convolutional Encoder
DRNE [79] AE Recursive Reconstruction Yes No -
G2G [80] AE KL + Ranking Yes Yes Nodes as distributions
VGAE [81] VAE Pairwise Probability of Reconstruction No Yes Convolutional Encoder
DVNE [82] VAE Wasserstein + Ranking Yes No Nodes as distributions
ARGA/ARVGA [83] AE/VAE L2-Reconstruction + GAN Yes Yes Convolutional Encoder
TABLE IV: Comparison of Different Graph Autoencoders (GAEs)

5.1 Autoencoders

The use of AEs for graphs is originated from Sparse Autoencoder (SAE) [75]333The original paper [75]

motivates the problem by analyzing the connection between spectral clustering and Singular Value Decomposition, which is mathematically incorrect as pointed out in

[84]. We keep their work for completeness of the literature.. The basic idea is that, by regarding adjacency matrix or its variations as the raw features of nodes, AEs can be leveraged as a dimension reduction technique to learn low-dimensional node representations. Specifically, SAE adopts the following L2-reconstruction loss:


where is the transition matrix, is the reconstructed matrix, is the low-dimensional representation of node , is the encoder, is the decoder, is the dimensionality and

are parameters. Both encoder and decoder are multi-layer perceptron with many hidden layers. In other words, SAE tries to compress the information of

into low-dimensional vectors and reconstruct the original vector. SAE also adds another sparsity regularization term. After getting the low-dimensional representation

, k-means

[85] is applied for the node clustering task, which proves empirically to outperform non deep learning baselines. However, since the theoretical analysis is incorrect, the mechanism underlying such effectiveness remains unexplained.

Structure Deep Network Embedding (SDNE) [76] fills in the puzzle by showing that the L2-reconstruction loss in Eq. (35) actually corresponds to the second-order proximity, i.e. two nodes share similar latten representations if they have similar neighborhoods, which is well studied in network science such as in collaborative filtering or triangle closure [5]. Motivated by network embedding methods, which show that the first-order proximity is also important [86], SDNE modifies the objective function by adding another term similar to the Laplacian Eigenmaps [54]:


i.e. two nodes also need to share similar latten representations if they are directly connected. The authors also modified the L2-reconstruction loss by using the adjacency matrix and assigning different weights to zero and non-zero elements:


where if and else and is another hyper-parameter. The overall architecture of SDNE is shown in Figure 7.

Motivated by another line of works, a contemporary work DNGR [77] replaces the transition matrix in Eq. (35) with the positive pointwise mutual information (PPMI) [58] matrix of a random surfing probability. In this way, the raw features can associate with some random walk probability of the graph [87]. However, constructing the input matrix can take time complexity, which is not scalable to large-scale graphs.

Fig. 7: The framework of SDNE reprinted from [76] with permission. Both the first and the second order proximity of nodes are preserved using deep autoencoders.

GC-MC [78] further takes a different approach for autoencoders by using GCN in [36] as the encoder:


and the decoder is a simple bilinear function:



are parameters for the encoder. In this way, node features can be naturally incorporated. For graphs without node features, one-hot encoding of nodes can be utilized. The authors demonstrate the effectiveness of GC-MC on recommendation problem of bipartite graphs.

Instead of reconstructing the adjacency matrix or its variations, DRNE [79] proposes another modification to directly reconstruct the low-dimensional vectors of nodes by aggregating neighborhood information using LSTM. Specifically, DRNE minimizes the following objective function:


Since LSTM requires a sequence of inputs, the authors suggest ordering the neighborhoods of nodes according to their degrees. A sampling of neighbors is also adopted for nodes with large degrees to prevent the memory from being too long. The authors prove that such method can preserve regular equivalence and many centrality measures of nodes such as PageRank [88].

Unlike previous works which map nodes into low-dimensional vectors, Graph2Gauss (G2G) [80]

proposes encoding each node as a Gaussian distribution

to capture the uncertainties of nodes. Specifically, the authors use a deep mapping from node attributes to the means and variances of the Gaussian distribution as the encoder:


where and are parametric functions need to be learned. Then, instead of using an explicit decoder function, they use pairwise constraints to learn the model:


where is the shortest distance from node to and is the Kullback-Leibler (KL) divergence between and [89]. In other words, the constrains ensure that KL-divergence between node pairs has the same relative order as the graph distance. However, since Eq. (42) is hard to optimize, energy-based loss [90] is resorted to as an relaxation:


where and . An unbiased sampling strategy is further proposed to accelerate the training process.

5.2 Variational Autoencoders

As opposed to previous autoencoders, Variational Autoencoder (VAE) is another type of deep learning method that combines dimension reduction with generative models [91]. VAE was first introduced into modeling graph data in [81], where the decoder is a simple linear product:


where are assumed to follow a Gaussian posterior distribution . For the encoder of mean and variance matrices, the authors adopt GCN in [36]:


Then, the model parameters can be learned by minimizing the variational lower bound [91]:


However, since the full graph needs to be reconstructed, the time complexity is .

Motivated by SDNE and G2G, DVNE [82] proposes another VAE for graph data by also representing each node as a Gaussian distribution. Unlike previous works which adopt KL-divergence as the measurement, DVNE uses Wasserstein distance [92] to preserve the transitivity of nodes similarities. Similar to SDNE and G2G, DVNE also preserve both the first and second order proximity in the objective function:


where is the Wasserstein distance between two Guassian distributions and and is a set of all triples corresponding to the ranking loss of first-order proximity. The reconstruction loss is defined as:


where is the transition matrix and are samples drawn from . The framework is shown in Figure 8. Then, the objective function can be minimized as conventional VAEs using the reparameterization trick [91].

Fig. 8: The framework of DVNE reprinted from [82] with permission. DVNE represents nodes as distributions using VAE and adopts Wasserstein distance to preserve transitivity of nodes similarity.

5.3 Improvements and Discussions

Besides these two main categories, there are also several improvements which are worthy discussions.

5.3.1 Adversarial Training

The adversarial training scheme, especially the generative adversarial network (GAN), has been a hot topic in machine learning recently [93]. The basic idea of GAN is to build two linked models, a discriminator and a generator. The goal of the generator is to “fool” the discriminator by generating fake data, while the discriminator aims to distinguish whether a sample is from real data or generated by the generator. Then, both models can benefit from each other by joint training using a minimax game.

The adversarial training scheme is incorporated into GAEs as an additional regularization term in [83]. The overall architecture is shown in Figure 9. Specifically, the encoder is used as the generator, and the discriminator aims to distinguish whether a latent representation is from the generator or from a prior distribution. In this way, the autoencoder is forced to match the prior distribution as regularization. The objective function is:


where is similar to the reconstruction loss defined in GAEs or VAEs, and is


where is the convolutional encoder in Eq. (45), is a discriminator with the cross-entropy loss and is the prior distribution. In the paper, a simple Gaussian prior is adopted and experimental results demonstrate the effectiveness of the adversarial training scheme.

Fig. 9: The framework of ARGA/ARVGA reprinted from [83] with permission. The adversarial training scheme is added into GAEs. The notations are slightly different from the main body where and in the figure correspond to and respectively.

5.3.2 Inductive Learning and GCN encoder

Similar to GCNs, GAEs can be applied to the inductive setting if node attributes are incorporated in the encoder. This can be achieved by using GCNs as the encoder such as in [78, 81, 83], or directly learning a mapping function from features as in [80]. Since edge information is only utilized in learning the parameters, the model can be applied to nodes not seen during training. These works also show that, although GCNs and GAEs are based on different architectures, it is possible to use them in conjunction, which we believe is a promising future direction.

5.3.3 Similarity Measures

In GAEs, many similarity measures are adopted, for example, L2-reconstruction loss, Laplacian Eigenmaps and ranking loss for AEs, and KL divergence and Wasserstein distance for VAEs. Although these similarity measures are based on different motivations, how to choose an appropriate similarity measure for a given task and architecture remains unclear. More research to understand the underlying differences between these metrics is needed.

6 Recent Advancements

Besides aforementioned semi-supervised and unsupervised methods, there are some recently advanced categories which we discuss in this section. Main characteristics of methods surveyed are summarized in Table V.

Category Method Type Scalability Node Features Other Improvements
Graph RNNs You et al. [94] Unsupervised No No -
DGNN [95] Semi-supervised/Unsupervised Yes No -
RMGCNN [96] Unsupervised Yes - Convolutional layers
Dynamic GCN [97] Semi-supervised Yes Yes Convolutional layers
Graph RL GCPN [98] Semi-supervised No Yes Convolutional layers + GAN
MolGAN [99] Semi-supervised No Yes Convolutional layers + GAN
TABLE V: Main Characteristics of Recent Advancements

6.1 Graph Recurrent Neural Networks

Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) such as GRU [27] or LSTM [59] are de facto standards in modeling sequential data and are used in GNNs to model states of nodes. In this section, we show that RNNs can also be applied to the graph level. To disambiguate with GNNs which use RNNs in the node level, we refer to these architectures as Graph RNNs.

You et al. [94] apply Graph RNN to the graph generation problem. Specifically, they adopt two RNNs, one for generating new nodes while the other generates edges for the newly added node in an autoregressive manner. They show that such hierarchial RNN architecture can effectively learn from input graphs compared to the traditional rule-based graph generative models while having an acceptable time complexity.

Dynamic Graph Neural Network (DGNN) [95] proposes using time-aware LSTM [100] to learn node representations in dynamic graphs. After a new edge is established, DGNN uses LSTM to update the representation of two interacting nodes as well as their immediate neighbors, i.e. considering one-step propagation effect. The authors show that time-aware LSTM can well model the establishing orders and time intervals of edge formations, which in turn benefits a range of graph applications.

It is also possible to use Graph RNN in conjunction with other architectures, such as GCNs or GAEs. For example, RMGCNN [96] applies LSTM to the results of GCNs to progressively reconstruct the graph as illustrated in Figure 10, aiming to tackle the graph sparsity problem. By using LSTM, the information from different parts of the graph can diffuse across long ranges without needing too many GCN layers. Dynamic GCN [97] applies LSTM to gather results of GCNs of different time slices in dynamic networks, aiming to capture both spatio and temporal graph information.

Fig. 10: The framework of RMGCNN reprinted from [96] with permission. RMGCNN adds LSTM into GCN to progressively reconstruct the graph.

6.2 Graph Reinforcement Learning

One aspect of deep learning that has not been discussed so far is reinforcement learning (RL), which has been shown effective in AI tasks such as game playing [101]. RL is also known to be able to handle non-differentiable objectives and constraints. In this section, we review graph RL methods.

GCPN [98]

utilizes RL for goal-directed molecular graph generation to deal with non-differential objectives and constrains. Specifically, the authors model graph generation as a Markov decision process and regard the generative model as a RL agent operating in the graph generation environment. By resembling agent actions as a link prediction problem, using domain-specific as well as adversarial rewards and using GCNs to learn node representations, GCPN can be trained end-to-end using policy gradient

[102]. Experimental results demonstrate the effectiveness of GCPN in various graph generation problems.

A concurrent work, MolGAN [99], takes a similar idea of using RL for generating molecular graphs. Instead of generating the graph by a sequence of actions, MolGAN proposes directly generating the full graph, which works well for small molecules.

7 Conclusion and Discussion

So far, we have reviewed the different architectures of graph-based deep learning methods as well as their distinctions and connections. Next, we briefly outline their applications and discuss future directions before we summarize the paper.

Applications. Besides standard graph inference tasks such as node or graph classification, graph-based deep learning methods have also been applied to a wide range of disciplines, such as modeling social influence [103], recommendation [96, 51, 78], chemistry [50, 41, 37, 98, 99], physics [104, 105] , disease or drug prediction [106, 107, 108], natural language processing (NLP) [109, 110]

, computer vision

[111, 112, 113, 114], traffic forecasting [115, 116], program induction [117] and solving graph-based NP problems [118, 119].

Though a thorough review of these methods is beyond the scope of this paper due to the diversity of these applications, we list several key inspirations. First, it is important to incorporate domain knowledge into the model, e.g. in constructing the graph or choosing architectures. For example, building a graph based on relative distance may be suitable for traffic forecasting problems, but may not work well for a weather prediction problem because the geographical location is also important. Second, the graph-based model can usually be build on top of other architectures rather than working alone. For example, RNs [32] use GNN as a relational module to enhance visual question answering problem and [109, 110] adopt GCNs as syntactic constraints for NLP problems. As a result, how to integrate different modules is usually the key challenge. These applications also show that graph-based deep learning not only help mining the rich value underlying existing graph data, but also help advancing other disciplines by naturally modeling relational data as graphs, which greatly generalizes the applicability of graph-based deep learning.

There are also several on-going or future directions which are worthy of discussions:

  • Different types of graphs. Due to the extremely varying structures of graph data, the existing methods cannot handle all of them. For example, most methods focus on homogeneous graphs, while heterogenous graphs are seldom studied, especially those containing different modalities like in [120]. Signed networks, where negative edges represent conflicts between nodes, also have unique structures and pose additional challenges to the existing methods [121]. Hyper-graphs, representing complex relations between more than two objects [122], are also understudied. An important next step is to design specific deep learning models to handle these different types of graphs.

  • Dynamic graphs. Most existing methods focus on static graphs. However, many real graphs are dynamic in nature, where nodes, edges and their features can change over time. For example, in social networks, people may establish new social relations, remove old relationships and their characters like hobbies and occupations can change over time. New users may join the network while old users can leave. How to model the evolving characteristics of dynamic graphs and support incrementally updating model parameters largely remains open in the literature. Some preliminary works try to tackle this problem using Graph RNN architectures with encouraging results [97, 95].

  • Interpretability. Since graphs are often related to other disciplines, interpreting deep learning models for graphs is critical towards decision making problems. For example, in medicine or disease related problems, interpretability is essential in transforming computer experiments to clinical usage. However, interpretability for graph-based deep learning is even more challenging than other black-box models since nodes and edges in the graph are heavily interconnected.

  • Compositionality. As shown in previous sections, many existing architectures can work together, for example using GCN as a layer in GAEs or Graph RNNs. Besides designing new building blocks, how to composite these architectures in a principled way is an interesting future direction. A recent work, Graph Networks [9], takes the first step and focuses on using a general framework of GNNs and GCNs for relational reasoning problems.

To summarize, our above survey shows that deep learning on graphs is a promising and fast-developing research field, containing exciting opportunities as well as challenges. Studying deep learning on graphs provides a critical building block in modeling relational data, and is an important step towards better machine learning and artificial intelligence eras.


We thank Jie Chen, Thomas Kipf, Federico Monti, Shirui Pan, Petar Velickovic, Keyulu Xu, Rex Ying for providing their figures.


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