• Feature Name: prior_art
  • Start Date: 2018-02-12
  • RFC PR: rust-lang/rfcs#2333
  • Rust Issue: self-executing


Adds a Prior art section to the RFC template where RFC authors may discuss the experience of other programming languages and their communities with respect to what is being proposed. This section may also discuss theoretical work such as papers.


Precedent has some importance

It is arguable whether or not precedent is important or whether proposals should be considered solely on their own merits. This RFC argues that precedent is important.

Precedent and in particular familiarity in and from other languages may inform our choices in terms of naming, especially if that other language is similar to Rust.

For additions to the standard library in particular, it should carry some weight if a feature is supported in mainstream languages because the users of those languages, which may also be rustaceans, are used to those features. This is not to say that precedent alone is sufficient motivation for accepting an RFC; but neither is it useless.

Experiences from other languages are useful

This is the chief motivation of this RFC. By explicitly asking authors for information about the similarity of their proposal to those in other languages, we may get more information which aids us in better evaluating RFCs. Merely name dropping that a language has a certain feature is not all - a discussion of the experience the communities of the language in question has had is more useful. A proposal need also not be a language or library proposal. If a proposal is made for changes to how we work as a community, it can be especially valuable how other communities have tackled a similar situation.

Experiences are useful to the author themselves

During the process of writing an RFC, an author may change certain aspects of the proposal from what they originally had in mind. They may tweak the RFC, change certain aspects in a more radical way, and so on. Here, the benefit of explicitly asking for and about prior art is that it makes the RFC author think about the proposal in relation to other languages. In search for this information, the author can come to new or better realizations about the trade-offs, advantages, and drawbacks of their proposal. Thus, their RFC as a whole is hopefully improved as a by-product.

Papers can provide greater theoretical understanding

This RFC argues that it valuable to us to be provided with papers or similar that explain proposals and/or their theoretical foundations in greater detail where such resources exist. This provides RFC readers with references if they want a deeper understanding of an RFC. At the same time, this alleviates the need to explain the minutiae of the theoretical background. The finer details can instead be referred to the referred-to papers.

An improved historical record of Rust for posterity

Finally, by writing down and documenting where our ideas came from, we can better preserve the history and evolution of Rust for posterity. While this is not very important in right now, it will increase somewhat in importance as time goes by.

Guide-level explanation

This Meta-RFC modifies the RFC template by adding a Prior art section before the Unresolved questions. The newly introduced section is intended to help authors reflect on the experience other languages have had with similar and related concepts. This is meant to improve the RFC as a whole, but also provide RFC readers with more details so that the proposal may be more fairly and fully judged. The section also asks authors for other resources such as papers where those exist. Finally, the section notes that precedent from other languages on its own is not sufficient motivation to accept an RFC.

Please read the reference-level-explanation for exact details of what an RFC author will see in the changed template.

Reference-level explanation

The implementation of this RFC consists of inserting the following text to the RFC template before the section Unresolved questions:

Prior art

Discuss prior art, both the good and the bad, in relation to this proposal. A few examples of what this can include are:

  • For language, library, cargo, tools, and compiler proposals: Does this feature exist in other programming languages and what experience have their community had?
  • For community proposals: Is this done by some other community and what were their experiences with it?
  • For other teams: What lessons can we learn from what other communities have done here?
  • Papers: Are there any published papers or great posts that discuss this? If you have some relevant papers to refer to, this can serve as a more detailed theoretical background.

This section is intended to encourage you as an author to think about the lessons from other languages, provide readers of your RFC with a fuller picture. If there is no prior art, that is fine - your ideas are interesting to us whether they are brand new or if it is an adaptation from other languages.

Note that while precedent set by other languages is some motivation, it does not on its own motivate an RFC. Please also take into consideration that rust sometimes intentionally diverges from common language features.


This might encourage RFC authors into the thinking that just because a feature exists in one language, it should also exist in Rust and that this can be the sole argument. This RFC argues that the risk of this is small, and that with a clear textual instruction in the RFC template, we can reduce it even further.

Another potential drawback is the risk that in a majority of cases, the prior art section will simply be left empty with “N/A”. Even if this is the case, there will still be an improvement to the minority of RFCs that do include a review of prior art. Furthermore, this the changes to the template proposed in this RFC are by no means irreversible. If we find out after some time that this was a bad idea, we can always revert back to the way it was before.

Finally, a longer template risks making it harder to contribute to the RFC process as an author as you are expected to fill in more sections. Some people who don’t know a lot of other languages may be intimidated into thinking that they are expected to know a wide variety of languages and that their contribution is not welcome otherwise. This drawback can be mitigated by more clearly communicating that the RFC process is a collaborative effort. If an author does not have prior art to offer up right away, other participants in the RFC discussion may be able to provide such information which can then be amended into the RFC.

Rationale and alternatives

If we don’t change the template as proposed in this RFC, the downsides are that we don’t get the benefits enumerated within the motivation.

As always, there is the simple alternative of not doing the changes proposed in the RFC.

Other than that, we can come to the understanding that those that want may include a prior art section if they wish, even if it is not in the template. This is already the case - authors can always provide extra information. The benefit of asking for the information explicitly in the template is that more authors are likely to provide such information. This is discussed more in the motivation.

Finally, we can ask for information about prior art to be provided in each section (motivation, guide-level explanation, etc.). This is however likely to reduce the coherence and readability of RFCs. This RFC argues that it is better that prior art be discussed in one coherent section. This is also similar to how papers are structured in that they include a “related work” section.

Prior art

In many papers, a section entitled Related work is included which can be likened to this section. To not drive readers away or be attention stealing from the main contributions of a paper, it is usually recommended that this section be placed near the end of papers. For the reasons mentioned, this is a good idea - and so to achieve the same effect, the section you are currently reading will be placed precisely where it is placed right now, that is, before the Unresolved questions section, which we can liken to a Future work section inside a paper.

A review of the proposal templates for C++, python, Java, C#, Scala, Haskell, Swift, and Go did not turn up such a section within those communities templates. Some of these templates are quite similar and have probably inspired each other. To the RFC authors knowledge, no other mainstream programming language features a section such as this.

Unresolved questions

There are none as of yet.

What is important in this RFC is that we establish whether we want a prior art section or not, and what it should contain in broad terms. The exact language and wording can always be tweaked beyond this.