Dear Ph.D. Student: Don’t be Afraid of Prior Art

A first step in a one-person research project in a domain new to a researcher (Ph.D. student) is to read-up on related work. This can be daunting, as sometimes it feels like everything has been done already, and there is nothing new to write a dissertation about. Fear not! With enough digging, the opportunities will present itself.

In software engineering research, the value of past engineering work can be confusing. What does it mean that there is an open source project in which someone implemented something similar to your idea? And even wrote a blog post or report about it? The short answer: This is a golden opportunity for fabulous research and not a threat to your idea.

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Dear Editor [of an Elsevier Journal]

Thank you for the request to review an article.

My usual reviewing fee for Elsevier journals is one full year of free access to your digital library for my university.

However, Elsevier has locked out German universities from accessing research on their websites, including our own. So in addition to my usual fee I must also ask that you return to the negotiating table and find a way that we can access our research again.

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Why Informatics is Everyone’s Business in Academia

Informatics (worse: Computing science; even worse: Computer science) is the discipline of automated data processing (where automation is both human independent and dependent, and data in context becomes information). The non-IT industry has learned the hard way over the last few decades that informatics is part of their core business, not just some support function. Financial institutions, automotive suppliers, advertising agencies and so forth are all recognizing that informatics is a key business aspect for them.

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On the Ordering of Nouns in Writing

Effective writing is important, or you won’t be understood and achieve your goal. An example is to get the ordering of nouns (or adjectives) in enumerations right. Let’s pick an example: In software engineering, a software feature’s implementation should be correct, complete, and testable. So a project goal could be “to ensure correctness, completeness, and testability of feature implementations.”

The following rules apply:

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How to Have an Impact as a Software Engineering Researcher

Over on Facebook of all places, I took part in a short discussion on how, as a researcher, to have an impact on practice. It is not a convenient answer, but in my opinion, if you want to have an impact, you should go into practice yourself. You can also send your students, but this creates a generational lag of research-to-practice transfer that can span decades.

One of the suggestions of how to have an impact was to perform action research. The idea is that you are creating change in an organization where you are performing said action research. However, action research is a research method whose purpose it is to help you build out and evaluate a theory. Unless you are into critical theory, action research does not have, as a primary goal, to change industry. It is just a theory building method.

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The Real Problem with Pay-walled Publications

Pay-walled publications are just that: Publications that nobody reads unless someone pays the publisher’s fee. I have no problem with that, because I don’t read pay-walled work and don’t consider it published research and prior art that I should care about.

The real problem starts with researchers and editors who expect me to find, read, and consider pay-walled work as prior art. That’s an unacceptable proposition to me and an unfair one to the world.

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How Not to Ask Your Research Question (And What to do About it)

In software engineering, the structure of research theses, most notably dissertations, is straightforward: (1) Formulate a research question, choose a method, build a theory, then (2) generate at least one interesting hypothesis, choose a method, and test the hypothesis as part of the theory’s attempted validation. A dissertation can do both parts 1 and 2 or just one of them, relying on or leaving stuff to others. The benefit of this structure is that it will be easily recognized by other researchers and make it eas(ier) to write great papers.

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Pay-walled Research Papers Do Not Constitute Published Work

I just had another discussion with a reviewer (by way of an editor) who insisted that I cite (presumably their) work buried behind an Elsevier paywall. How obnoxious can you be?

It is 2019 and there are still editors and reviewers who consider articles, which are not freely accessible on the web, published research? That’s so wrong. Such work has been buried behind a paywall. It yet needs to be published.

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Inverted Research Funding

Most people believe that scientists first perform basic (“fundamental”) research and then perform applied research. Basic research delivers the fundamental insights that then get detailed and refined as they hit reality in applied research. Along with this comes the request that basic research funding should be provided by the country (because few companies would ever pay for it) before industry kicks in and supports applied research. Nothing could be further from the situation in my engineering process research.

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