How many deleted sections do you write?

Research ideas come through writing. Thinking deep thoughts while you stare at the wall is not productive. So, researchers write a lot. Some of it is incorrect or uninteresting.

Just like movie studios are filled with deleted scenes, my drawers are full of deleted sections. I write about 5 research papers a year; I must throw away several hundred pages of content each year. Deleted scenes make it to the DVD version. My deleted sections sometimes appear in technical reports. Most often, I never publish them. They fall in the following categories:

  • Lengthy theoretical analysis of a tangential idea. Or a good idea in the wrong paper.
  • Description of unconclusive analysis or experiment.

I am often reluctant to throw away uninteresting content. But I worked so hard on this section!

Throwing away content is easy if you write conference papers. The page limitations and tight deadlines force your hand. However, it becomes harder with journal articles where there are often no page limitation, and reviewers expect a thorough and exhaustive analysis.

The main problem, I believe, is in the medium itself. That is, our collective reluctance to definitively move away from paper. Just like DVDs make it possible to include deleted scenes, research papers appearing online should have links to deleted sections and extra material. Some of the sections I delete should still be available.

Yes, I can write an appendix, but they are peer reviewed. I want to include extra stuff for the curious readers.

Daniel Lemire, "How many deleted sections do you write?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, January 6, 2009.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

7 thoughts on “How many deleted sections do you write?”

  1. I call that stuff “documentation” and “lab notes”. I try to rewrite all my scribbling into LaTeX, ready to use or not in a paper. Though, it seems I’m now switching to scanning them in and saving in Evernote.

  2. There is an odd bit of irony here. I think you mean academia when you mention “our collective reluctance to definitively move away from paper.” The rest of the computer-science community has largely moved to the web.

    Journals used to be nearly the only communications medium for practitioners between organizations. From the early 1980’s through the early 1990’s I subscribed to perhaps a dozen ACM and IEEE publications for pretty much exactly that reason.

    Now a “journal” that does not publish to the web is a ghetto – isolated and known to few. Ironic that the once most-effective communication medium is now least-effective and most-inefficient.

    Hopefully this will change.

  3. It’s well known that the trash can is the primary tool of the programmer.
    Incidentally this reminds me of a joke about academic funding:

    “Why the heck do you physicists ask for such humongous budgets?
    The mathematicians only ask for paper, pencils and erasers.
    And look at the philosophers, they don’t even need the erasers!”

  4. @Bannister Journals are available on the Web, but they are still paper-based. The whole process is designed around paper.

    Some workshops and conferences are now entirely paperless, but it took quite a long time. Until very recently, a publication in a paperless conference would not “count”. The very definition of what a “publication” was, was tied to ink and paper.

    Things are changing, but we have not, collectively, reflected on what it means. Once you do away with paper entirely, you can use hyperlinks generously, for example.

  5. Some journals (e.g., APA journals) allow online appendices, although I do not see many authors making use of them. This mode is useful in ensuring that the material has gone through the peer review process.

    Sometimes authors say that the additional information is available on request. Posting additional information on a personal website seems like a reasonable idea, also.

    Thus, it seems there are avenues for providing supplementary information.

    The issue is perhaps that there are few perceived rewards for doing it. The additional material will not count as an additional publication. If anything, material that might have been used in a subsequent publication can not be used for such purposes, because it has already been published. Likewise, supplementary information is often less polished than the main journal article. This means that we need to decide whether to put in more work to improve supplementary information or decide to present it with a caveat regarding its quality.

  6. “research papers appearing online should have links to deleted sections and extra material. Some of the sections I delete should still be available.”

    We’ve been promoting this idea of Remembrance (pdf, CIDR 09), i.e. that all documents and other containers of data should retain all the history of the documents, as an intrinsic property. So, whatever sections you had but deleted later, should still be accessible through “memory”/history, even when the document is transmitted, published, or processed.

    This retention of “memories” must propagate, i.e. we have to provide an end-to-end solution. Any derivative of your final paper should continue to retain the memories of the deleted sections.

  7. One idea is to use a wiki to publish the extra stuff as standalone “small pieces, loosely joined” that can then be hyperlinked by yourself and others.

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