The standard introduction

As a reviewer in the “Real-time Systems” research field, it happens to me to review many tens of papers every year, both conference and journal papers. And most of them start with the typical standard sequence of statements:

“Nowdays, many applications have real-time requirements…”

“Real-time is a widespread requirement in modern distributed applications…”

and other boilerplate material to fill up the introduction section.

Writing the introduction is one of the most dared tasks for a PhD student (at least for my students!). So, usually the introduction is written by the senior researcher that uses its experience to give an overview of the topic. Since fantasy is limited, in most cases the introduction is then a patchwork of typical standardized sentences. The fact than there are web-sites devoted to the problem, helps to make the whole thing even more standardized.

For example: in many of the paper I read the authors continue by defining a real-time system as “a system whose correctness depends not only on the correctness of the outputs but also on the time at which they are produced“. Now, listen: to explain the definition of a real-time system is useful for novice readers that may be unfamiliar with the research in this field: however, in most cases the authors continue the paper by assuming complex and abstruse concepts from their previous papers that even specialist reviewers find difficult to understand without reading 4-5 additional papers. So, please stop defining a real-time system in the introduction, the readers will all be very grateful.

Very often the introduction contains references to application domains as avionics, automotive, telecom, etc. These statements have also the purpose to show that the authors are well aware of the requirements of real applications, and that their model is not just-another-useless-mathematical-abstraction. More often than not, however, the authors continue with an abstract system model, fill up the paper with equations and algorithms (of which they extensively discuss the complexity), and conclude with simulations using synthetically generated task sets, never going back to the original proposition of dealing with actual applications.

These patterns are so common that I just started to entirely skip reading the blah blah in the introduction, to concentrate on the hard stuff in the middle. It saves me some time and I can immediately focus on the important stuff.

I have to admit that in most cases I have also followed the crowd: I have written a lot of standardized and pretentious material in the introduction, and sometimes also in the abstract: shame on me!

I also noticed that in other closely related fields, like theoretical computer science and mathematics, they often skip this initial piece of hypocrisy and go directly to the point: definitions and theorems. So, my modest proposal is to start skipping this initial part: in most cases our work has nothing to do with real applications, so let’s stop pretending, and let’s start with the stuff we all like to write and to read. Or at least, let’s reduce the blah blah to the bare minimum! We will save time, trees, pixels!

What do you think?


7 thoughts on “The standard introduction

  1. Peppe, a shared sentiment, of course! Perhaps some more hyper-text kind of attitude in papers write-up would not be bad (e.g., for the related work, please see my last paper, where these couple of other works should be considered blah blah; or, for an introduction, please refer to this other work — either mine or from others).
    However, I’m not really sharing your ultimate proposal about how to tackle this problem: dropping any pretention of usefulness, and leaving papers feeding of their own theoretical speculative nature. At least, ok for mathematicians, but can we go that way in Computer Engineering ?
    What about trying to bridge a bit more the gap between academic research and real-life problems, instead ? I’ve recently seen a slide from a PhD candidate with planet Earth on one side of a bridge, and a generic research box on the other side, where I immediately felt like the research on the other side was actually a galaxy departing so amazingly fast, and the more time passes, the faster it departs away from Earth!
    How many of the techniques so well studied through research papers are finding any applicability in real life ? Is it really a matter of technology transfer, or is it also a matter of techniques that are so nice and beautiful in the lab, but when they hit reality they disintegrate against the rude world that does not comply with the theoretical assumptions ?
    Ultimately, that’s out of discussion — at least personally — I would love to see my research bringing some real benefit to the society. For this, we need that (claimed useless) introductive material to ground the research to our real needs, and ensure its roots extend deep into the dirty ground, to ensure there’s enough of that lymph coming up and spreading throughout the research results like a virus…
    … and I don’t mean to push for incremental research & innovation! I’m just talking about orienting the research in a way that its results can find some applicability in real-life problems!
    A bit of a provocatory answer, but that’s what you love in a blog, don’t you ?

    • Tommaso, I agree that research in computer engineering should come closer to engineering practice. However, I do not see how writing a standardized introduction helps to make progress toward this objective.
      One thing is to say that the *scientific content* of the paper should be more engineering-oriented; another is to read all those lengthy introduction material which tries to justify the theoretical work in the paper. In the second case it is just hypocrisy, isn’t it?

      I do not reject engineering work, not at all. Also, I think there must be an effort to put the paper into context. But what about scheduling-theoretical papers? Do they really need an “immediate practical justification”? Why can’t we live with the fact that there can be theoretical paper that need not to be justified?

      • > Why canโ€™t we live with the fact that there can be theoretical paper that need not to be justified?

        Well, I guess the answer is easy: you have to consider who pays for the research. Regardless of whether it’s academic or industrial research, if you’re not able to explain why this is important for the society, then why to invest resources therein at all ? — just for the own fun of the scientist(s) ๐Ÿ™‚ ?

        That said, perfectly agree that all this introductory material is highly redundant and often disconnected from the real papers contents. However, my point is that we need more connection with real-life problems and more impact, but this is far from being achieved by writing redundant and non-sense introductory material. I don’t think we can remove the description of the real-life context of applicability, but I do agree that we can be much shorter on that side, and we could just refer to previous papers etc…

  2. Peppe, I tend to agree with you, at least for those papers that propose a slightly better analysis technique, or a bit more complex scheduling algorithm….but some times you do need an introduction. I am now thinking in one of those papers that even though the topics in it would potentially be extremely beneficial if adopted/known by the community, you as the author expect it not to be the kind of material your regular rtss or ecrts reviewers will have in their bookshelf…. In any case I would agree that the introduction is many times too verbose and pretensious.
    One alternative solution that we may push in our communication/publication spaces is to define a more refined mechanism for referencing previous material n a literal way. We may consider for example to write all technical texts (including of course the introductions) with a kind of “Chapter and Verse” numbering strategy (like the BIble), so that we may just add a call to previous texts. I guess this may work fine at least for material in the same journal or conference publication space.
    This way the introductions (and any other part as well) may be less redundant in aspects like the domain or economical/industrial situation for the reader… and more focused on references to specific technologies that the reader is expected to have read/known in order to follow the rest of the discussion/contribution.
    This may also induce the writer to state the arguments or claims in self contained reusable phrases/paragraphs.
    Further references to a text would need not only the number of the bibliographic reference at the end of the paper [XX] but a composed code, like [XX.yy] indicating also the “verse” (yy) in the referenced paper.

    Coming back to your claim, my favorite hated prase in introductions is:

    “The ever growing complexity of real-time embedded systems…..”

    I have never done so but, just for your calm, I would avoid ever doing yet another definition for what a real-time system may be in a paper… if not necessary for further referencing the verse in a later paper of course…. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Ah, the one you mention is very popular! Another good one:

      “Embedded real-time control systems are becoming increasingly important in our society. Most areas of technology are penetrated by this technology, bringing great profits in terms of
      reduced cost and increased services, thereby leading to improvement in a diversity of fields. We often trust these systems with our lives, by using them for applications in which our safety is threatened in case they do not function properly.”

      (this is actually taken by a real introduction of an existing paper, and I modified it a little to make it difficult to find the guy that wrote it!).

      As for the reference system you propose: I guess that with the advent and diffusion of electronic papers, references may just be direct links, and a scientific paper an hypertext. Which, by the way, would make a lot of sense.

  3. Personally, I fully agree with Peppe about the hypocrisy that drives this all, at least in most of the cases. We all know real-time systems are used in avionics, thus, improving the schedulability analysis of a real-time scheduling algorithm is going to be (at least potentially) helpful for every current and future user of it, including, and of course not limited to, avionics, even without saying it in the introduction, right? Or do we want to, every time, if the contribution is general enough, list all the possible current and future field of applications that *may* benefit from it? No, I’m sorry, but in my ideal world, if you mention avionics (or multimedia, or whatever) in the intro, it means you’ve done something at least vaguely related to that, and I expect to find evidence of that at some point, later in the paper (the specific algorithm one chooses to improve, the exp evaluation, whatever!). If not, you either are being delusional or trying to trick either yourself or the reader/reviewer (or both).

    Just to stick to the example of scheduling theory, well, scheduling theory _is_ math, and there is no problem with or nothing to be ashamed of that, no reason why you shouldn’t just state that in the introduction, without (again) deceiving yourself and other by putting vague references to some catchall formula or random application field. Reason why this is important is at least partly related to what Tommaso was saying: it’s computer engineering, so it has to lean toward real world. Well, that’s of course true in general, but it’s not that there can’t be theoretical work and, whenever it is the case, one better just say it without hypocrisy and tricks. And I don’t think it’s (only) a matter of brevity, something that you can fix via hyperlinks, or adopting a ‘biblic style’… It just an “is or isn’t” thing!

    Of course, and this could be my personal experience talking, the funny thing is that when you actually send a less theoretical work, which for example describes the application or the implementation of some well renowned theory in one of those application fields we fill introductions with, that one is rejected. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that something like that has the same degree of innovation and scientific relevance than the others. It’s the incremental research Tommaso (again) was talking about, and I’m well aware and even agree (well, to a certain extent :-P) to that. What I just find “funny” is that you need to fill the introduction of your purely theoretical paper with avionics examples, to show (to whom?) your research is relevant, then, when a paper that implements technology X on real avionic system shows up, you beat it up! :-O Basically, the way it is now (or at least the way it was when I was around), seems to imply that you need real-word references, but *only* in the introduction… That’s why I’m calling/agreeing with Peppe in calling this hypocrisy.


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