Should Academia care for standards?

In the December 2006 edition of IEEE Computer, Simone Santini, from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid asks “Standards: What Are They Good For?” The gist of his argument is that using concepts like XML in Computer Science is harmful. He argues that there is no such thing as XML technologies since XML, like all standards, is nothing but a rather slimy mix of politics and industrial concerns. He says that no W3C standard is deserving of a Computer Science paper. (Does he know that W3C never issued a standard?)

Why? Mostly because, “having academia operate on industrial principles makes about as much sense as having the industry operate on academic ones.” Interestingly, he argues that if Computer Science had been as focused on standards 40 years ago as it is now, we would still be programming in Fortan and Cobol on OS/360 operating systems.

You see the problem in his argument? First, academia should not operate on industrial principles, but yet, somehow, academic research is meant to lead to industrial progress (such as Java, C++ and Windows XP?).

I like the guy, for sure, just because he dares to publish this in IEEE Computer… an engineering publication. Do you know people more obsessed by standards than engineers? He is not going to win a popularity contest and I am amazed he managed to get this opinion piece to press.

Here are some arguments I would like to submit to him:

  • There is zero evidence that having researchers interested by standards, such as people studying XML, is having a harmful effect on the pace of technology. It may harm some theoretical research work, but I seriously doubt it.
  • Computer Science, as a branch of Mathematics, should not care about XML or the W3C. But academic research does not stop at Computer Science. Information Technology is an increasingly important discipline and it cares very much about Web standards. Moreover, Computer Science is sometimes considered and engineering discipline (think about “software engineering”) and engineers need to care about standards . Finally, Computer Science should be an empirically discipline and not just a branch of Mathematics, and in this respect, it should care about standards and study them from a scientific point of view (maybe to improve them!). For example, XML is a bit more than just an “unranked labeled tree”: it is one of the most interesting phenomenon in Information Technology that I know of. Choosing not to study XML would be like choosing not to study the Web.
  • Not all standards are ugly compromises. It often goes down that way, but some standards are fun and interesting.

So, my answer is clear: yes, academia should care about standards, despite Simone Santini‘s point of view.

(Disclaimer: I do not think that any of my papers have been standards-centered, and most, if not all, are not standards-aware. I do not generally write papers about XML or XQuery or XHTML. My point though is that such work is perfectly legitimate.)

2 thoughts on “Should Academia care for standards?”

  1. Well, Daniel, I can see you are not going to frame my column and put it in the place of honor in your office. Just a few comments about your points.

    I rather liked it, actually. Of course, I totally disagreed with it, but that’s a different thing. I think you are a rather talented columnist and “We Are Sorry to Inform You… ” was memorable. I would frame “We Are Sorry to Inform You… “, but it was a multi-page article as I recall and those are hard to frame.

    You might find reassuring to check out my pub. list… here are some titles:

    – A Better Alternative to Piecewise Linear Time Series Segmentation
    – One-Pass, One-Hash n-Gram Count Estimation
    – Hierarchical Bin Buffering: Online Local Moments for Dynamic External Memory Arrays
    – An Optimal Linear Time Algorithm for Quasi-Monotonic Segmentation
    – …

    So, no trace of standards there… you see? 😉 I’m mostly clean.

    1. I do think that there is some hint that computing research has suffered from excessive attention to standard, (…)

    Let me skip over the quality of software part, which is not interesting to me at this time. How was computing research impacted by excessive attention to standard?

    2. Information Technology is not, as my quality standards go, fit material for academic research. if nothing else, for lack of internal coherence. I am not even quite sure what information technology is.

    Publications like Communications of the ACM are probably 20% IT, 20% information systems, 40% software engineering and 20% CS these days. IEEE Computing is certainly not predominately CS.

    I might as well be frank: most of the articles in either CACM or IEEE Computing are intensely boring to me. Yours excepted. Still, pure CS is a very tiny fraction of “computing research” these days. Many, many, many colleagues are into web services, semantic web, e-Learning, and so on. Surely, that must be true in Spain as well.

    Is IT fit material for academic research? Well, I’m not an IT researcher so I’ll invite IT researchers to defend themselves. However, lots of people from prestigious schools have spent a lot of time documenting what IT is and how it ought to be taught:

    http://www.acm.org/education/curric_vols/IT_October_2005.pdf

    I’d be generally curious about your criteria. Is software engineering fit for academic research? Is Information Systems fit for academic research? On which basis do you decide whether there is sufficient “internal coherence”?

    From the point of view of computing science, an XML document is an unranked labeled tree, nothing more.

    Hmmm… so the Web is nothing but a directed graph? An UML diagram is nothing but a fancy graph. An image is nothing but a two-dimensional array? We agree then there is no sense ever considering the Web or images, or videos, or any other Information Technology construct in Computer Science since these are only instances of perfectly reasonable mathematical constructs we can study without being bothered by standards (such as those governing image formats, on web protocols, and so on).

    Ooops… just checked out your pub. list! Oh! My! Web Graphics Recommender System? Isn’t the Web an IT construct? A social phenomenon? (I’m teasing you… don’t answer this one…)

    If it has a great social importance, that is a study matter for a sociologist, not a computing scientist.

    I hope sociology is interested by XML! However, from this line of argument, we could derive the fact that human-computer interaction (HCI), since it is focused on how human beings perceived things, belongs squarely in psychology… which is too bad since many CS departments offer HCI courses and there are numerous HCI researchers who consider themselves Computer Scientists. I know many of those.

    Computers are formal symbol manipulation machines, and I can’t see how their study can be other than mathematical in nature.

    Software engineering is not very mathematical to me… Project management, unit testing, design specifications, business processes, skills analysis… is a software engineering researcher a computing researcher?

  2. Well, Daniel, I can see you are not going to frame my column and put it in the place of honor in your office. Just a few comments about your points.

    1. I do think that there is some hint that computing research has suffered from excessive attention to standard, and, maybe more importantly from your point of view, that industrial software quality has also suffered. For one thing internet software, which is by far the type that most relies on standards, is also by far the software with the poorest quality. The relation is, in any case, worth studying.

    2. Information Technology is not, as my quality standards go, fit material for academic research. if nothing else, for lack of internal coherence. I am not even quite sure what information technology is. From the point of view of computing science, an XML document is an unranked labeled tree, nothing more. If it has a great social importance, that is a study matter for a sociologist, not a computing scientist. Computers are formal symbol manipulation machines, and I can’t see how their study can be other than mathematical in nature.

    True, the W3C does not issue standards in the sense that ISO does. Let us call them “de facto” standards, for lack of a better word. As to the 40 years and FORTRAN, my argument was completely within the limits of research: the innovation over existing standards was necessary for the internal development of computing research. That it should have a positive effect on the industry should be welcomed, but it should not be what motivates research.

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