On normative statements in academic papers

Nov. 17th, 2018

What follows is an excerpt of a thought I had a few weeks ago while working on a research paper submission. In the context of my work you could probably deduce exactly what the submission is to, but that's not of import.

I work on low-level runtime systems for the purpose of making them operate more efficiently. I study abstraction mechanisms that make it easier for people implementing these systems to understand and build on the work of others. The field of computer science is plagued by an imperative to public "new" or novel ideas and works, even when those ideas are quite clearly a dead end in the current landscape of research. I guess those ideas are useful in the sense that they can instigate discussion of the idea, but why not make something that people can actually use?

Definition: A normative statement expresses a value judgment about whether or not a situation is desirable.

Definition: A positive statement is a description or declaration about the state of the world without any implicit indication of goodness or badness.

I probably make a number of normative statements in my paper. Then again, the only way to argue a point in the motivating section of a paper seems to be with normative statements because the whole premise of the paper is on laying the foundations for formally describing the problem at hand. The problem at hand being how to even express the shape of an arbitrarily nested data structure without getting caught up in the details of the algorithm operating over said data structure.

So what role does novelty play in how we express the problem we want to solve? From a strictly presentation-centric view, novelty is merely a signpost for the reader and community members to extract some measure of progress relative to the community as a whole. But if that were the end of it, we could simply define novelty as a sub-item of a paper's abstract built-in to the paper submission system in lieu of a community standard whereby paper writers include statements of novelty directly in the paper itself. No, novelty is actually more substantive than that. Novelty lets us define the standards by which a reader should judge our paper and the research itself. The novelty for the paper which motivated this post places a focus on mathematical (logic) foundations. This sets an appropriate tone for the paper given the audience.

- Karl