Is your research paper a star, a comet, or an asteroid?

One of the tasks I find challenging is determining what papers to recommend for introducing grad students to a particular field. How to split the assignments between classics and current hot topics? In order to help students anticipate what kind of papers they are about to read, I came up with a metaphor that I find quite useful. I thought I might share that with you in case it’s useful to you.

Stars

In terms of research papers, a star is a masterpiece that has a profound and lasting impact in a field. It is well written, has deep implications, provokes thought and will likely to be worth reading again in several decades. It proposes either a sound technique that can be applied to many problems, or such tremendous results that are likely to remain unbeaten for a long time. I also put in that category some papers that thoroughly summarize a broad range of advances in a field and allows newcomers in the field to understand many key concepts without having to read tens and tens articles.  Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (op.125) is a good music example.

In my field (supply chain network design), there is a paper which perfectly fits that definition: A.M. Geoffrion and G.W. Graves’ Multicommodity Distribution System Design by Benders Decomposition, published in Management Science in 1974. More on this in an upcoming blog post.

Comets

A comet is a bright, shiny object that generates a lot of attention. It is at the center of a hot topic or trend in research.  However, its relevance is tied to a particular time and context, and its intrinsic value diminishes quickly over time. Either the method was replaced by something more effective or the discussion has evolved.

As a researcher, one usually remembers the papers that were comets at the time she was introduced to that particular topic. It’s important to know what are the current comets in the sky. What is worth reading in that category tends to change rather quickly, and it is a good idea to keep this list updated frequently if you don’t want your students to waste their time on outdated approaches.

When I started working on SCND, international supply chains were a hot topic. Multinational could use transfer prices to affect the taxes they paid in each country. It also made the models more challenging to solve. However, the freedom to fix these prices was practically removed by governments to prevent tax evasion, thereby killing the practical relevance of these problems. 

Asteroids

Asteroids form the vast majority of research papers. Most of them are not relevant to you (or your students) unless they are very close to the particular topic or approach you are currently working on. In many broad fields (like vehicle routing), it’s impossible to even read 10% of the asteroids out there. Don’t waste your time by reading too many papers of that kind. Only read what’s very close to your research, unless you want to spend your life writing literature reviews.

In SCND, there are hundreds of papers proposing heuristics to solve a particular sets of instances or a very specific formulation. Usually their algorithm is only slightly faster than the previous state-of-the-art, and the article’s value gets to near-zero as soon as someone publishes a faster algorithm.

What to read, then?

The more I think about this problem, the more I think that you can’t skip on the classics (aka stars), especially at the Ph.D. level. If these papers are particularly difficult to understand, it can be replaced by a book chapter or another reading that is easier to understand.  In terms of research, it is common for people who don’t master the stars to mistake comets for stars and asteroids for comets.

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