Are Computing journals too slow?

Continuing the ongoing discussion about the publication habits of computing researchers that I've recently blogged about:

This time around, we have Moshe Vardi Revisiting the Publication Culture in Computing Research in the latest Communications of the ACM.

The May 2009 editorial and the August 2009 column attracted a lot of attention in the blogosphere. The reaction has been mostly sympathetic to the point of view reflected in both pieces. For example, Jeanette Wing asked in her blog: "How can we break the cycle of deadline-driven research?", and Filippo Menczer, in a Letter to the Editor published in the November 2009 issue, said: "I propose the abolition of conference proceedings altogether."

Not everyone, however, agreed with this point of view. For example, in another Letter to the Editor from the November 2009 issue, Jano van Hemert said: "For CS to grow up, CS journals must grow up first." Mr. van Hemert's issue with computing-research journals is that they are known to have "slow turnaround, with most taking at least a year to make a publish/reject decision and some taking much longer before publishing." Such end-to-end times, he argued, "are unheard of in other fields where journal editors make decisions in weeks, sometimes days."


What is the reason for the unacceptably slow turnaround time in computing-research journals? When considering this question, one must factor the problem into two separate issues: time from submission to editorial decision, and time from positive editorial decision to publication.


Let us now consider the editorial process in computing-research journals. Why is it soooo slow? Consider who is in charge of that process. It is not the publishers; it is the editors and referees. In other words, it is us. The process is slow because that is the way we run it. If we want it changed, it is up to us to change it! I suspect that we cannot separate our conference-focused publication culture from our sluggish journal editorial process. Conferences have sharp deadlines, journals do not. We simply do not take our roles as editors and referees as seriously as we do as program committee members because we do not take journals as seriously as other fields. If we, as a community, decide that we need to shift from conference-based publication to journal-based publication, we definitely must address the slow editorial process, but we should not complain about "them journals." We have found the enemy, and it is us! (emphasis added -JD)

Now, I'm not going to comment on whether or not reviewers or editors take to long to do their job, or whether or not computing should be a journal-based or a conference-based field. I'm not even going to comment on whether or not those two things are related.

On the contrary, I'd like to see the "problem" of "slow journals" as an opportunity to talk about disruptive change in scholarly publishing. Here we are in the most disruptive age imaginable for scholarly communications, here we are talking about computing -- and yet it all comes down to time lines for peer review.

What's the real opportunity?

Perhaps the opportunity isn't to ask, "Are Computing journals too slow?" but to ask, "What do Computing scholars really need?"

What really interests me is the potential for the transformation of a disciplinary scholarly communications culture, the opportunity to start from scratch and build something that makes sense for all the stakeholders, not just entrenched interests, commercial forces and historical entitlements.

Realistically speaking, the incredible weight of history and cultural inertia probably make total transformation impossible in any kind of short or medium term. Societies aren't going away, journals aren't going away, scholarly conferences aren't going away. Even monographs aren't going away.

A couple of things do strike me, though.

Some questions:

  • If I was a computing person and I was going to start over with the whole scholarly communications apparatus, would I even bother with journals or conference proceedings at all?
  • Oh sure, I would still have conferences but mostly in resort cities with good bars and interesting museums and other tourist attractions. In other words, places that will stimulate interaction, investigation and collaboration, not more PowerPoint.
  • But seriously, in terms of actually communicating scientific or technical ideas in a structured, systematic and repeatable format, I probably need something like the arxiv.
  • The objects that would get deposited could include experimental narratives (ie. papers & reports, potentially with accompanying audio or video), code, data, presentations (slides and/or A/V), monograph-length material
  • I would also allow stuff that isn't research-based like informal presentations, course materials including syllabi, problem sets and other stuff.
  • Since we value peer review, I would probably do a few things.
    • Organize something like what PLoS ONE does for research-based materials, to make sure everything represents legitimate research output.
    • I would consider making all the reviewers' comments openly available, possibly even signed
    • Bolt on something like Friendfeed to aggregate commentary and discussion around the objects
    • I would also bolt on the kind of object-level metrics that PLoS is using.
  • Who pays? Again, I would use the PLoS model with author fees picking up production costs and organizing reviewing. The kinds of models that arxiv and SCOAP3 are exploring are also potentially viable.
  • None of this precludes the continued existence of a non-scholarly, general interest venue like the Communications of the ACM.

What am I missing? Is this too Utopian? How do you reboot a whole scholarly culture?

Perhaps even more interesting a question for us -- what's the library's role in the post-stuff collections age? Preservation, co-ordination, training, facilitating collaboration?

(Re: My Job in 10 Years book project: This is potentially an extract from the chapter on scholarly communications.)

One response so far

  • Janne says:

    "I would still have conferences but mostly in resort cities with good bars and interesting museums and other tourist attractions. In other words, places that will stimulate interaction, investigation and collaboration, not more PowerPoint."

    In all places I've worked, as a graduate student or post-doc you only get funding and time off for a conference if you're formally presenting something there (oral presentation or poster). lose the proceedings, lose the formal presentations and you also lose 90% of your attendees.

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