Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

A recipe for interesting Computer Science research papers

In Are your research papers telling original stories?, I claimed that the main benefits of the typical research paper were that:

  • the contribution to the state-of-the-art is clear (what did you invent?);
  • we can quickly quantify the value of the contribution (how well does it work?).

Basically, research papers are fitted to the needs of the current peer review system.

The current breed of research papers are also convenient. There are millions of ways of improving any given process. Each improvement can become a research paper. You can even proceed systematically. Pick any given solution to a problem and add a twist to it. Can you solve the problem faster? Can you solve the problem by using less memory? Can you solve the problem incrementally? And so on. You can manufacture countless research papers without ever learning anything new. And because you measured and categorized all of your contributions, you are even likely to get much recognition! Moreover, because you invented many new things, you may even get your name on a framework, algorithm or problem! If any of what you did is useful for industry, you may even get rich!

But I may not find your work interesting. I would like to propose an alternative recipe that should produce more interesting research papers:

  • Pick any process followed by practitioners or by nature. How do human beings or ants solve a given problem? What heuristics do successful engineers follow?
  • Explain, model or reproduce the process in question.

There are endless puzzles out there. For example, I have no satisfactory explanation of why wikipedia worked. Had I been asked about a project like wikipedia in the nineties, I would have predicted failure. Admit it: you would have done the same. Yet, it worked. Why?

Look at how the best programmers work. They have many clever tricks (algorithms, processes, strategies) that you will never find in any textbook. Sometimes these tricks work unreasonably well. But we have no explanation.

Remember: Nature is the best coauthor.

Further reading: Write good papers.