Sometimes the Name Is the Contribution

Every now and then I read or re-read a famous, influential paper and realize (or at least suspect strongly) that it did not — at the time it was published — contain any new ideas. My guess is that a paper like this can become highly cited for one or more of the following reasons:

  • It popularized an existing idea that was not widely known.
  • It was well written, and packaged up existing knowledge in a convenient, pleasing way.
  • It provided a good name for a concept that previously lacked one.

This last issue, naming, is the one that fascinates me. Somehow, ideas are not quite real until they are given a label. (An unfortunate side effect is that many researchers have realized this, and assign names to trivial algorithms and silly results.) In the near future I’ll write a detailed post about a paper whose contribution is naming a known technique. In the meantime, I’d love to hear readers’ suggestions about papers like this.

Note that I am not mocking or belittling this kind of paper. On the contrary, the authors of these papers deserve every bit of recognition they get: the timely synthesis, packaging, and naming of existing ideas is a difficult art and most of us would love to be able to pull this off just once or twice in a career.

4 Replies to “Sometimes the Name Is the Contribution”

  1. Leslie Lamport share your opinion about this:

    http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/lamport/pubs/pubs.html#byz

    Quoting his comment:

    “I have long felt that, because it was posed as a cute problem about philosophers seated around a table, Dijkstra’s dining philosopher’s problem received much more attention than it deserves. (For example, it has probably received more attention in the theory community than the readers/writers problem, which illustrates the same principles and has much more practical importance.) I believed that the problem introduced in [41] was very important and deserved the attention of computer scientists. The popularity of the dining philosophers problem taught me that the best way to attract attention to a problem is to present it in terms of a story.

    There is a problem in distributed computing that is sometimes called the Chinese Generals Problem, in which two generals have to come to a common agreement on whether to attack or retreat, but can communicate only by sending messengers who might never arrive. I stole the idea of the generals and posed the problem in terms of a group of generals, some of whom may be traitors, who have to reach a common decision. I wanted to assign the generals a nationality that would not offend any readers. At the time, Albania was a completely closed society, and I felt it unlikely that there would be any Albanians around to object, so the original title of this paper was The Albanian Generals Problem. Jack Goldberg was smart enough to realize that there were Albanians in the world outside Albania, and Albania might not always be a black hole, so he suggested that I find another name. The obviously more appropriate Byzantine generals then occurred to me.

    The main reason for writing this paper was to assign the new name to the problem. But a new paper needed new results as well. I came up with a simpler way to describe the general 3n+1-processor algorithm. (Shostak’s 4-processor algorithm was subtle but easy to understand; Pease’s generalization was a remarkable tour de force.) We also added a generalization to networks that were not completely connected. (I don’t remember whose work that was.) I also added some discussion of practical implementation details. “

  2. Heh, this reminds me of Stigler’s Law of eponymy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler%27s_Law ‘In its simplest and strongest form it says: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” Stigler named the sociologist Robert K. Merton as the discoverer of “Stigler’s law”‘

    Also, there’s this fairly kooky (but interesting!) book called “Naming Infinity” about the discovery of descriptive set theory, which claims that the Russian mathematicians that developed this theory did so at least in part because they were Christian mystics who believed literally that naming was an act of creation.

  3. Carlos, nice- I hadn’t seen Stigler’s Law.

    The power of naming comes up a lot in fiction but I didn’t know anyone really believed it!

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