What is a Position Paper?

IETF participants, the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) occasionally organize workshops and place a requirement for an accepted position paper onto workshop attendees. Such a position paper requirement allows the workshop organizers to ensure that only those persons attend the workshop who are committed enough to spend through the additional effort of writing down their ideas. This avoids “tourists” and off-topic input. It also gives the workshop organizers a planning tool: since the workshops are typically free of charge the organizers rely on a host to provide meeting facilities and there are typically limitations.

So, what is a position paper?

The author(s) of a position paper are asked to describe (on a small number of pages) their thoughts relevant to the workshop theme. Since we are all experts in a specific area we typically have many views and so we have to decide for one specific topic that we are most interested in. This is typically a tough decision making process since there are so many things to write about.

A position paper does NOT have the requirement to provide novel ideas. In fact, it is perfectly fine for a position paper author to have the view that no further work is needed. This factor differentiates a position paper from an academic paper. The focus on “why” something should be done, what the assumptions are, and what problems/challenges exist is more valuable input than yet another solution description. In fact, there will typically be too little space to lay out a solution in a reasonable level of detail anyway.

While it sounds easier to write position papers than academic papers that’s not necessarily true. The authors are asked to understand technical as well as non-technical aspects. For example, an understanding of the broader eco-system, which includes the deployment reality as well as needs from the society, are certainly valuable since many problems are not only caused by a pure technological failure.

Needless to say that the authors should pay attention to the workshop theme when they write their position paper. Workshop organizers have the difficult task to be as precise as possible in their call for position papers but they try not to be too restrictive to eliminate ideas that are a bit outside the mainstream. Providing a clear theme for paper authors requires that the workshop organizers to have some insight into the topic and to express the goal clearly. Look around for workshop announcements and judge yourself whether you believe that the organizers provide enough guidance. If the workshop announcement is a simply laundry list of hype terms then better wait for the next workshop. For this purpose it is encouraged to interact with the workshop organizers and to ask them question. Don’t be shy – ask them ahead of time whether they think a position paper on a specific topic would be a good fit. Since experts can typically write about a large range of topics even asking the workshop organizers to pick from a set of topics is reasonable.  Interacting with the workshop organizers is particularly useful if the author is not yet well-known in the community.

Ideally, the position of the author should be clearly recognizable from the abstract of the document and the rest of the paper supports the argument.If possible, the author also suggests next steps. When suggesting next steps try to be realistic and think about what the involved stakeholder are actually able to do. For example, suggesting that IETF participants organize a BOF to start new standardization on a protocol is realistic in a workshop organized by the IETF or IAB (with the qualification that the workshop organizers or any of the participating IESG members will not just say “yes – approved” but that the standards process has to be taken into consideration). Asking for world-wide adoption of the architecture presented by the paper author is not realistic. Asking firewalls and NATs to disappear because they are inconvenient for protocol designer is not useful either.

From a format point of view a position paper is not so much different from an academic paper. The paper has a title (not just “position paper by foo”), lists the authors with their contact information, provides information about the workshop they paper was submitted to, includes figures with titles that are referenced in the text, includes references to relevant work, etc.

Let us pick two position paper examples from the March 2011 IAB workshop on Smart Objects:

Margaret Wasserman submitted a contribution with the title IT’S NOT EASY BEING “GREEN”

The paper clearly articulates the opinion of the author by saying:

In this paper, I would like to talk briefly about energy efficiency in IETF protocols. This is an area that I believe has been largely ignored by the IETF in the past, and one where we could achieve significant benefit by raising widespread IETF awareness of the issues involved.

Margaret then describes a couple of protocol design aspects that impact energy consumption in protocol design and suggest future work that can be done by the IETF/IAB.

Tero Kivinen submitted a paper describing how to develop a minimal IKEv2 implementation (by omitting optional features in the IKEv2 specification). Tero’s view is that a lightweight client implementation of IKEv2 is possible when certain features are omitted and he supports his argument with a detailed description and code. Tero did not suggest next steps in his paper but he submitted a draft for standardization to the IETF.

These two position papers provided me valuable feedback for the agenda preparation of the workshop.

So, if you write a position paper next time for an IETF/IAB workshop please consider some of my recommendations.

PS: As a workshop organizer I provide review comments to the authors and I expect them to update their submission accordingly.

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