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,

A brief farewell after 10 years

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers little after I joined Telefonica as a researcher 10 years ago. He said that it takes approximately 10000 hours or 10 years to become good at something. I was on my way back from US. I was leaving academia after 10+ years and I was heading to my first real job. I had a recent PhD, a good number of publications, and a growing number of scientific collaborations under my belt. My viewpoint on things was more or less as follows:

— A Network was a Graph

— Competition was a Strategic Game

— Investment was a Facility Location problem

— Complexity was Combinatorial

— A good solution had to be non trivial

Today is my last day with Telefonica.

— A Network is a mindboggling mess of cables, boxes, buildings, antennas, people, and companies that run around it like bees to keep it running. It’s so amazing that it works most of the time. Nobody fully understands why.

— Competition is an even worse monster. Companies collaborate in one place and compete in the another. They are friends today and enemies tomorrow. Regulation, public opinion, and random events can change the game from one day to the next. Good luck trying to make sense of it through Game Theory.

— Cost structures, CAPEX, OPEX are so complex that even producing an accurate bill of something like our total electricity consumption is a highly non-trivial task. You can try to optimize one thing here only to find out that you are breaking 10 things there.

— Complexity is still combinatorial but not so much on the number of links but on the number of business units, business models, and on the number of assumption that one makes about the future.

— It’s really great when a solution is trivial

Telefonica has been a great school for me. I saw more cable than I even believed existed. I switched off rows of modems to save energy and got surprised to see the remaining ones locking at a higher bit-rate due to reduced crosstalk. I participated in building real stuff, from CDNs to WIFI aggregators, and from ride-sharing systems, to browser addons for privacy. I was given access to tons of numbers about how much things cost and how much traffic goes through them. Got to work with regulators, investment planers, strategy departments, innovation departments, communication and PR people, HR, and almost any other specialty that you can imagine. I was allowed to create an NGO.

Throughout all this I managed to remain a researcher. I don’t know if I managed to fit Gladwell’s predictions, but I am sure I stand way more firm on my feet today than when I walked in. I am grateful for the great opportunities I was given and for the wonderful people that I got to work with these 10 years.

Telefonica is a fantastic place for any young researcher that wants to take a walk on the real side of things.

Via Augusta, circa 2010.

Mathematical fixed points, scale invariance, and poetry

I know a tiny bit of mathematics and even less of poetry, but I recognise fixpoints and scale invariance when I read them:

What is Good? What is Evil?:

“A point A point
and on it you find balance and exist
and beyond it turmoil and darkness
and before it the roar of angels

A point A point
and on it you can progress infinitely
otherwise, nothing else exists any more”

And the Scales which, stretching my arms,
seemed to balance light and instinct, were

this small world the great!

“Axion Esti”
Odysseus Elytis

O. Elytis
B. Mandelbrot
L. E. Brouwer