Monday, July 9, 2012

In Defense of the Scientific Paper

http://www.flickr.com/photos/openeye/5428831/
Since leaving academia, I still find the time to serve on scientific program committees (recently NSDI, MobiSys, and SOCC) and have plenty of opportunity to read both good and bad scientific papers in various states of preparation. And although I am not required to publish papers in my current job, I certainly hope to do so -- a lot of the work we are doing at Google is imminently publishable -- it's just a matter of finding the time to sit down and write them!

Although I've blogged about how the scientific publication process needs fixing, I still feel that the process of writing a scientific paper is a hugely rewarding experience. Arguably, the primary value of scientific papers isn't in reading them, but writing them. You learn so much in the process.

Writing a paper sharpens your mental focus like nothing else. Like Japanese bonsai art or building a ship in a bottle, paper writing forces you to obsess over every meticulous detail -- word choice, overall tone, readability of graphs -- and of course more mundane details like font size and line spacing. This microscopic attention to every aspect of your work brings out a wonderful, if somewhat exhausting, intellectual rapture. I have never thought so clearly about a piece of research than when I'm in the throes of putting together a paper against a deadline.

You start with nothing, a blank editor window and some LaTeX boilerplate, some half-baked ideas, a few axes to grind and a tremendous apprehension at how much your life is going to suck between now and the deadline. You throw in all of the raw ingredients, the rough ideas, the broken implementation, the confusing data, the missing citations. Over a period of days or weeks you grind it and refine it and throw it out and start over and eventually hone the paper to a razor-sharp, articulate, polished fourteen pages of scientific beauty, and then just hope like hell that you didn't screw up the margins or forget to cite some important piece of related work.

I used to think that writing a paper was something you did after the research was over, but now I realize you should sit down to write the paper as early as possible -- sometimes before even starting the "research work" itself. On a few occasions, it wasn't until I started writing a paper that I knew what the hell the research project was really about. Case in point: Our SenSys 2009 paper on the Mercury wearable sensor platform came out of a project that had been running for nearly two years without a clear set of goals or any real insight into what the interesting research problems were. We had built a prototype and had some stuff working, but we didn't know what was publishable about it, and most of the problems we had to solve seemed mundane.


In a last-ditch measure to revive the project, I got the students together and said, fuck it, let's write a SenSys paper on this. As we started piecing together the story that we wanted to tell in the paper, we realized that none of our work to that point tackled the most important problem: how to ensure that the sensors produced good, and useful, data when there was a hard limit on battery lifetime. With the deadline just weeks away, the students pulled together and reimplemented the system from scratch and cranked out a ton of new measurements. The process of writing the paper resulted in a flood of new ideas, many of which bled over into my other projects, ultimately resulting in a half dozen papers and three PhD theses. It was awesome.


And even if a paper does not get accepted, crystallizing the ideas through the process of putting together the submission can be really energizing. I never assumed any paper I wrote would actually get accepted, so submitting the paper was often the start of a new line of work, riding on that clarity of thought that would emerge post-deadline (and a much-needed break of course).