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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What’s better: Submit to ICSE or TSE? (Conference or Journal?)

When planning a publication strategy for a dissertation, invariably the question comes up where to submit your papers. Ph.D. students naturally are biased towards conferences, because if a paper gets accepted to a conference they get to travel to a (usually) nice place. I nip this bias in the bud right away: For a journal paper, every Ph.D. student gets a conference to attend for free. This lets us focus then on the economic value of a journal vs. a conference paper and how to best reap the benefits of hard research work. Here, I’m a contrarian (to most colleagues): I’m in favor of journals. It is also the economically smart choice for a Ph.D. student.

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Evaluation of Theories vs. Validation of Hypotheses

Research should be presented with appropriate choice of words to the world. So it bugs me if researchers, maybe unknowingly, overreach and call the evaluation of a theory a validation thereof. I don’t think you can ever fully validate a theory, you can only validate individual hypotheses.

The following figure shows how I think key terms should be used.

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We May not Know What We are Doing…

From my excursion into qualitative research land (the aforementioned Berliner Methodentreffen) I took away some rather confusing impressions about the variety of what people consider science. I’m well aware of different philosophies of science (from positivism to radical constructivism) and their impact on research methodology (from controlled experiments to action research, ethnographies, etc.) I did not expect, however, for people to be so divided about fundamental assumptions about what constitutes good science.

One of the initial surprises for me was to learn that it is acceptable for a dissertation to apply only one method and for that method to only deliver descriptive results (and thereby not really make a contribution to theory). In computer science, it is difficult to publish solely theory development research (let alone purely descriptive results) without any theory validation attempt, even if only selective. The limits of what can be done in 3-5 Ph.D. student years are clear, but this shouldn’t lead anyone to lower expectations.

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Why “Boring” is no Reason for Rejection

A researcher-friend recently complained to me that her research paper had been rejected, because the reviewers considered it “boring”. I recommended that she complain to the editor-in-chief of the journal, because in my book, “boring” is no acceptable reason to reject a paper. (“Trivial” may be, but that is a different issue.)

The reasoning behind rejecting a paper, because it is “boring”, is as follows: Research should be novel and provide new and perhaps even unintuitive insights. Results that are not surprising (in the mind of the reviewer, at least) are not novel and therefore not worthy of publication.

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How the Lack of Theory Building in Software Engineering Research is Hurting Us

Traditional science has a clear idea of how research is to progress, rationally speaking: First you build a theory, for example, by observation, expert interviews, and the like, and then you generate hypotheses to test the theory. Over time, some theories will stand the test of time and will be considered valid.

Sadly, most software engineering research today, even the one published in top journals and conferences, often skips the theory building process and jumps straight to hypothesis testing. Vicky the Viking, from the accordingly named TV series of way back comes to my mind: Out of the blue, some genius idea pops into the researcher’s mind. This idea forms the hypothesis to be tested in research.

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On the Misuse of the Terms Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Researchers often use the term “qualitative research” to mean research without substantial empirical data, and use “quantitative research” to mean research with substantial empirical data. That doesn’t make sense to me, as most “qualitative researchers” will quickly point out, because qualitative research utilizes as much data in a structured way as it can. Everything else would not be research.

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Why “Soft” Research is “Hard”

Some of my colleagues like to talk about how research that involves programming is “hard”, while research that involves human subjects is “soft”. Similarly, some colleagues like to call exploratory (qualitative) research “soft” and confirmatory (quantitative) research “hard”. Soft and hard are often used as synonyms for easy and difficult, and this is plain wrong.

Pretty much any research worth its salt is difficult in some way, and working with human subjects makes it even more difficult. I find research methods like qualitative surveys, involving interview analyses, for example, much harder than the statistical analysis of some data or some algorithm design. The reason is the lack of immediate feedback.

While you can (and should) put quality assurance measures in place for your interview analyses, ranging from basic member checking to complex forms of triangulation, it might take a long time until you learn whether what you did was any good. So you have to focus hard in your analysis without knowing whether you are on the right track. It doesn’t get more difficult than this.

Research Papers vs. Blog Posts

A short Twitter thread:

Scientific research papers cite other research papers for related or prior knowledge they build on; they cite blog posts as primary material to work with in theory building; two very different things 1/4

A blog post needs to (a) properly use the scientific method and (b) be socially validated by peer review to be considered a scientific research article; for (b) it needs a traditional journal 2/4

The problem with research papers are for-profit publishers and the to-pay open access model; publishers are bottom feeding to increase revenue, hurting the reputation of science with low quality papers 3/4

Please don’t start another journal unless you have an answer that solves the conflict between for-profit publishing and academic publishing incentives @timoreilly 4/4