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I'm currently writing a bachelor thesis in which there is a section that deals with the pros and cons of different data serialization formats. Since this is not the main focus of the thesis, I would like to limit the comparisons to include 2-3 of the most widely used formats - for instance; JSON and XML.

I know from experience that JSON and XML are two of the most widely used formats for serializing data on the web, but how can I prove a statement like that? Does it need proof to be included as a boundary/limitation of the thesis?

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    This question brings up an interesting point regarding the difference between justification and proof. I would contend that your claim is nearly impossible to prove, but it might be possible to justify. – apnorton Mar 25 '15 at 20:41
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I know from experience that JSON and XML are two of the most widely used formats for serializing data on the web, but how can I prove a statement like that?

You can't*. That's why you typically do not matter-of-fact-ly state that this is the case. You argue why you have chosen that you have selected those two formats, without claiming anything you are not sure about. For instance, it would be ok to claim that you have selected XML because it is used in many open standards, or that you have selected JSON because of its high compatibility to JavaScript, or that you have any of those because it is used in framework XY, which is of high significance to your work.

Loosely-related-story time:

I did my PhD in services computing. In my research circles, everybody "knew" that, while SOAP (a protocol for Web services) supports any number of protocol bindings (HTTP, TCP, JMS, even SMTP), the only binding that is really used is HTTP. We "knew" this because basically all tutorials and books really only talked about HTTP, and it seemed like a logical thing to do (you know, "Web" services and all). That was until I talked to a practitioner from IBM about this, who then informed me that more 70% of their's and their customer's SOAP services are actually consumed over JMS, because, even though this is much more annoying to set up, JMS is what most companies used for integration before Web services, and changing it would be way to intrusive.

End of story time

Especially for young software-developers-turned-computer-scientists, separating what you think is true (e.g., because many books or blogs claim it is, or because it seems logical) from what you know is true (e.g., because there are reliable studies, or because it can indeed be proven) is a hard, but valuable, lesson, and your undergraduate thesis is the perfect place to learn it. While writing your thesis, reflect what you really know and what is just the kind of "community common knowledge" that any community of enthusiastic practitioners tends to build up. Most of the time, the common knowledge will be correct, but you will be surprised about the times it isn't.


*And I am not 100% sure the statement is true. I would not be surprised if binary serialization (e.g., protocol buffers) is used more often than either, especially if the same entity controls both sides of the communication.

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    I would probably phrase it something like "XML and JSON are among the most widely used formats". That way, it's not an absolute statement, but it does say something about the popularity. – svick Mar 26 '15 at 1:12
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    How would you even quantify "most widely used"? Most companies? Most products? Most bytes? As it stands, it's not a sufficiently precise statement to even have a truth value. – Nate Eldredge Mar 26 '15 at 1:23
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    As the OP wrote "two of the most widely used formats" I think the statement is in fact true, because it does no claim they are the two most used formats. In each category Nate mentioned here I would say the statement holds true, so although it is quite unspecific I would not say it isn't correct. I am more troubled by "on the web", because this can basically mean anything. – Reinstate Monica - dirkk Mar 26 '15 at 13:11
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    @dirkk I could have sworn that the OP wrote "the most widely used formats". I guess that's what I get from answering on an airport shortly before boarding. – xLeitix Mar 26 '15 at 15:17
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Words like "most" are real problems in scientific writing because you often want to make a strong statement about how important your work is, but to do so would be claiming something that you don't actually have evidence for.

Generally, however, it doesn't actually have anything to do with the argument for importance. The significance of your work depends on the fact that it affects many things, not whether the people it affects are a majority, a plurality, or a minority.

Thus, if you modify your example from:

JSON and XML are two of the most widely used formats

to:

JSON and XML are two widely used formats

then you have an unimpeachably true statement that is actually no weaker than your original.

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If you use statements like "the most common", then it needs a proof (either citation or some of your own finding). If popularity is non-essential, try writing things like "two popular formats are JSON and XML" - this way it sounds as a common knowledge and it won't need justification.

Source: once I wrote a paper on a party game and there were many aspects being "common knowledge", but for which there was no actual data. I was advised to remove all statements like "the most popular variant of the game" and to change them into describing particular variants without making factual claims on their popularity.

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    As anecdotal evidence, I occasionally try to actually get data on random assertions that are 'common knowledge' in student thesis I review (for many topics you actually can get some reasonably solid data in 5-10 minutes of searching academic papers), and very often (30%+?) that assumption turned out to be false, even if I also believed it to be common knowledge. – Peteris Mar 26 '15 at 1:36
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You should explain why you've chosen XML and JSON in the context of your larger thesis. Something like

Because technology X, Y, and Z (that the thesis is about) support both XML and JSON serialization, it is worth studying these serialization schemes in more detail.

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As I am not an expert in your field I can only give a general answer.

A statement does not need proof if it is considered common knowledge, either generally or in the field. Proof absolutely does not mean getting data, but getting a relevant referene

  • However, be prepared to defend every statement you make if it's questioned during a presentation. – Mast Mar 26 '15 at 7:53

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