Fortnow's article continues a discussion about scholarly communication patterns in computer science that's been going on for a while in the "pages" of the CACM. I've blogged about it a couple of times here and here.
Fortnow's main idea is that CS needs to get past the youthful stage of using conferences as the main vehicle for disseminating new ideas and move to a journal-based model, like most of the rest of scientific disciplines. In the end, it's all about peer review:
Unlike every other academic field, computer science uses conferences rather than journals as the main publication venue. While this made sense for a young discipline, our field has matured and the conference model has fractured the discipline and skewered it toward short-term, deadline-driven research. Computer science should refocus the conference system on its primary purpose of bringing researchers together. We should use archive sites as the main method of quick paper dissemination and the journal system as the vehicle for advancing researchers' reputations.
But even worse, the focus on using conferences to rate papers has led to a great growth in the number of meetings. Most researchers don't have the time and/or money to travel to conferences where they do not have a paper. This greatly affects the other roles, as conferences no longer bring the community together and thus we are only disseminating, networking, and discussing with a tiny subset of the community. Other academic fields leave rating papers and researchers to academic journals, where one can have a more lengthy and detailed reviews of submissions. This leaves conferences to act as a broad forum and bring their communities together.
Our conference system forces researchers to focus too heavily on quick, technical, and safe papers instead of considering broader and newer ideas. Meanwhile, we have devoted much of our time and money to conferences where we can present our research that we can rarely attend conferences and workshops to work and socialize with our colleagues.
Computer science has grown to become a mature field where no major university can survive without a strong CS department. It is time for computer science to grow up and publish in a way that represents the major discipline it has become.
I find it interesting that the CS community, surely among the most "online" of all the scholarly disciplines, is reaffirming the value of strong peer review. More interesting, perhaps, is the way Fortnow distinguishes between speedy initial publications in archives combined with slower, more deliberate peer review before something later appears in a journal. Which is sort of like what's happening in various physics communities with arxiv and later journal publication.
However, I'm not convinced that you need a "journal" to have peer review, that it can't be embedded as another layer in whatever kind of fast-track publication system ends up being used.
If the CS community decides to go in this direction, it would be an amazing opportunity to rebuild their corner scholarly publishing from the ground up, to decide on what they truly value. Some ideas:
- fast and efficient to dissemination of findings
- combining data, code, narrative and other pieces into one scholarly object
- a layering of traditional peer review and open commenting and discussion over the collection of scholarly objects
- versioning of those objects
- working with the various stakeholders to figure out how it's all going to be funded and built: departments, societies, libraries, publishers, conference organizers, journal editorial boards.
They could, in essence, lead the way into the post-journal scholarly communications landscape.