The three types of research papers and how I learned to recognise them

After 15+ years of reading, writing, presenting, reviewing, selecting, discussing, stapling, and doodling on the margins of papers I have concluded that there exist three large families of research papers:


About papers are usually written, read, discussed, championed, sent as attachments by people that care about an area. They love the area so much such that everything that has anything to do with it immediately becomes an interesting read. You can write an about-paper about a dataset that you managed to get hold of, about a trial you ran with real users, about the latest research infrastructure that you are developing, or about your favourite new technology. I love reading well written about-papers. I just prefer reading them in magazines, news papers, blogs, newsletters, etc. I definitely don’t like waking up in the middle of the night to review them, especially in weekends and during holidays. The hallmark of an about-paper is its general interest about the area and its relative disinterest about specific contributions and questions in this area.


A concept is a magic lens through which complex things become simple helping us to finally understand them. Think of price of anarchy, differential privacy, betweenness centrality, power-usage efficiency. Great concept-papers can have a profound positive impact in our understanding of the world. They cut across areas and problems and reveal underlying hidden truths and structures. Unfortunately, most concept papers are not of the great type. It’s really tempting to think that you’ve come across the silver bullet that will pierce through any type of steel and concrete. Bad concept-papers confuse and distract. Instead of being a means, they become an end to themselves. In the process they distract our attention from real problems and waste huge amounts of time. The easiest way to write the wrong concept-paper is to believe too much in genius and divine intervention. Despite being more than welcome, neither the first nor the second are strict pre-requisites for a concept-paper. Experience and domain expertise is often all it takes to come up with a great concept after having observed a common structure across different fields and problems. A special case of concept-paper craziness is the technology-concept-paper. Using bit-torrent to send people to Mars, bitcoin to cure cancer, and tcp to alleviate traffic jams in Beijing.


  • Is location-based price discrimination happening in e-commerce?
  • Which advertisers place targeted ads driven by sensitive personal data?
  • How much cross-subsidization exists between heavy and light consumers of residential broadband?
  • What percentage of online advertising revenues go to fake clicks?
  • Who starts fake news campaigns in social media?
  • Can we build sub 10ms delay networks?”.

Questions-papers are all about answering a clear and easy to understand question about something that is important and hard to guess without doing some work first. Surely you can find questions in both about- and concept-papers. The difference is that in question-papers it is the question that leads the entire effort as opposed to taking the back seat as in the other two. A clear and important question is an infallible compass for finding your way among the myriads of alternatives arising during any research effort. Putting the question on the driver’s seat makes everything else fall easily in place: the dataset that you need, the expertise required for answering it, the right definition, the right algorithm, the right system, the results to show.

Over the years I have written papers of all three types but I must admit that lately I only care about question-papers. I would love to write a good concept paper in the area where I currently work but I am afraid I still have some question to ask and answer before being ready to do so,

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