Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Old References

One interesting aspect of our WSDM paper is that we have multiple references from the 1930's and 40's. It turns out our problem is related to some of the problems from the early (earliest?) days of experiment design.

This was actually a stumbling block for us for a while. In one sense, we had a very positive starting point, in that I knew there was something out there related to our problem. As a youth (literally, back in high school) I had seen some stuff on the theory of combinatorial design, and while it was too abstract for me to find a direct connection, I knew there must be some stuff out there we better be aware of. We eventually found what we really needed by random searching of keywords; some variation of "experiment design" led us to the Design of experiments Wikipedia page, which used Hotelling's problem as an example. Once we had this (our magic keyword!), we could forward track to other relevant references and information.

In many cases, the problem is not only that you don't know what you should be referencing -- you may not even know you should be referencing something at all. This happens a lot in problems at the boundaries -- econ/CS problems, for example. Most notably, this was a big problem in the early work on power laws, as I pointed out in my survey on power laws -- that's the most egregious example I know, where a lot was "re-invented" without people realizing it for quite some time.

I still get the feeling that, despite the great tools we now have available to us, people don't do enough searching for related work. I can understand why. First, it's not easy. If you don't know what the right keywords are, you have to use trial and error (possibly helped by asking others who might have a better idea). For multiple papers I have written, I have spent multiple hours typing semi-random things into Google and Google scholar, looking around for related work. (In the old days, as a graduate student, I actually pulled out lots of physical books from the library shelves on anything that seemed related -- I like this new system better.) It can seem like a waste of time -- but I really, really encourage authors to do this before submitting a paper. Second, in many cases there's a negative payoff. Who wants to find out (some of) what they did was already done? (In fact, I think everyone who expects to have a long research career would actually prefer to find this out as soon as possible -- but it still can be hard to actively seek such news out.)

On the positive side, I can say that good things can come out of it. Reading all the original work and related problems really helped us (or at least me) better understand the right framework for our variation of the problem. It also, I think, can help get your paper accepted. I feel we tried hard to clearly explain the historical context of our problem -- I think it makes our paper richer than it would be without it, exposing some interesting connections -- and I think it paid off; one reviewer specifically mentioned our strong discussion of related work.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you.

luc said...

when i was googling with blogspot as a keyword, i saw this blog many times
makes me boring but i wonder how