July 8, 2011

Leveraging collaborative projects to produce better academic research

Opposing industrial and academic research worlds is a classic discussion. Academics have recently been suspected to address unmotivated problems because they do not manipulate the technologies that are at the core of their research activities. The importance of having an "industrial motivation" behind an academic research is reflected by a statistic: papers authored by at least one industrial researcher represent approximately half of accepted papers in the best conferences in operating systems (15 out of 32 for OSDI'11) and networking (16 out of 32 for Sigcomm'11). These papers monopolize the technical sessions related to new trends, especially datacenter and production network for OSDI, cloud computing and user measurement for Sigcomm.

In these applied science areas, the best conferences accept papers addressing industry-relevant problems if and only if (i) authors demonstrate the timeliness and relevance of the problem, and (ii) authors carefully evaluate their proposed solutions.
  • problem motivation: a scientist who is only reading papers about a technology can hardly formulate a relevant important problem related to this technology. In order to have an accurate view of the problems faced by companies, a first idea is to spend time there as a visiting researcher, as it is promoted in Google. Another idea is to work with industrials in projects like  FP7 STREP project. I mean, actually work together, and not pretend working together.
  • solution evaluation: a NS2 simulation is no longer enough for a Sigcomm paper. Nowadays, some large-scale infrastructures give free access to scientists (for example Open Cirrus for a large data-center, Planet Lab for an Internet-scale network, Grid 5000 for a grid, Imagin'Lab for a 4G/LTE cellular network). There is no excuse to not test solutions over real infrastructures. However, the access to infrastructure is not sufficient, evaluations should also be based on realistic user patterns. Author of the excellent Hints and tips for Sigcomm authors claims "use realistic traffic models"! Besides using available real traces (for example the amazing network traces from Caida), the idea is again to leverage on a project collaboration with industrials that are able either to deploy a prototype on real clients, or to provide exclusive traces of their real clients.
Hence, short-term focused collaborative projects are ideal if one wants to write well-motivated well-evaluated industry-relevant papers. But, in this case, why have I never been in position to submit a competitive paper to Sigcomm although I participated in many collaborative projects? Probably because:
  • some of my industrial partners were not really industrial. In large companies, R&D labs are frequently disconnected from the real operational teams, so researchers in these labs are unable to provide substantiated arguments about the criticality of the project, to successfully deploy a prototype, and even to obtain traces from their real clients.
  • in a consortium, every partner has its own agenda. Receiving fundings while minimizing efforts may be the only point all partners agree. I rarely feel that all partners share a strong commitment to make the project actually work. More frequently, the funding acceptance is considered as the final positive outcome, the project itself being only a pain.
  • the project work-plan does not include the writing of a scientific paper. Scientific production is usually seen as a dissemination activity, under the responsibility of an academic partner, although writing a top-class paper requires a precise planning of the contributions of every partner (including milestones and deliverables).
Now that I understand why successful collaborative projects are critical and why my recent projects have (relatively) failed, I hope I will be able to leverage collaboration with industrials to do better research (a.k.a. write better papers).


  1. do better research = write better papers?

  2. Just a provocative last sentence about another critical debate :-)

  3. je découvre ton blog, j'allais écrire : tiens, c'est marrant, en France c'est pareil.

    L'idéologie de l'appel à projet avec consortium à la sauce RNTL-RNRT-ANR-RIAM etc... depuis 12 ans nous pourrit la vie, des réunions stériles, comme tu l'écris justement. Workpackages, on fait "un système".... c'est un grand théâtre opportuniste, des journées perdues dans des réunions à la con, où on aurait pu rester bien caché lire un super article qui nous aurait inspiré pour 3 mois.

    Il faut des appels à projets au fil de l'eau, comme l'Etat savait les faire il ya 10 ans, et de la souplesse. Il faut réflechir à une formule plus exigence et plus riche que les GDR, mais moins prétentieuse que les labex, qui ne sont qu'une pitoyable foire d'empoigne - je suis je crois dans le même que toi....

    En tout cas, ce problème est très intéressant, car vital. J'essaie d'échanger beaucoup avec les industriels, dans des cadres informels.

    Un PR