Saturday, October 1, 2011

Academic publishing issues in Computer Science

As the new school year gets underway, a few snapshots from the current state of affairs with respect to scholarly research and academic publishing in the Computer Science field:
  • At Princeton University, a faculty committee studying the issues of Open Access have issued a report detailing their recommendations for the university's open access policy. In the report, they say:
    We recommend a revision to the Rules and Procedures of the Faculty that will give the University a nonexclusive right to make available copies of scholarly articles written by its faculty, unless a professor specifically requests a waiver for particular articles. The University authorizes professors to post copies of their articles on their own web sites or on University web sites, or in other not-for-a-fee venues. Of course, the faculty already had exclusive rights in the scholarly articles they write; the main effect of this new policy is to prevent them from giving away all their rights when they publish in a journal.
    The Princeton policy is based on an earlier one issued by Harvard, which states:
    The intention of the policy is to promote the broadest possible access to the university’s research
    That policy, in turn, is based on earlier policies adopted by MIT, Stanford, and Duke. At the Freedom to Tinker blog, Professor Andrew Appel of Princeton discusses the new policy in more detail, saying:
    Basically, this means that when professors publish their academic work in the form of articles in journals or conferences, they should not sign a publication contract that prevents the authors from also putting a copy of their paper on their own web page or in their university's public-access repository.
  • Meanwhile, Matt Welsh points us to a recent article in the Communications of the ACM: Rebooting the CS Publications Process. If you have trouble getting to the article because it's behind a paywall (see the previous item!), try this link.

    The article details a litany of problems, including low-quality reviews, long lag times for article publication, and low acceptance rates, and proposes a solution named CSPub:

    CSPub is, at its core, a mashup of conference and journal submission and review management software, such as HotCRP [26], with technical report archiving services like arXiv and with bibliographic management and tracking and search services like DBLP, Google Scholar, and CiteULike (see Section 4 for extended discussion on how these systems work).
    As Welsh notes, however, it's not clear that the problem here is a technology problem:
    The fact is that we cling to our publication model because we perceive -- rightly or wrongly -- that there is value in the exclusivity of having a paper accepted by a conference. There is value for authors (being one of 20 papers or so in SOSP in a given year is a big deal, especially for grad students on the job market); value for readers (the papers in such a competitive conference have been hand-picked by the greatest minds in the field for your reading pleasure, saving you the trouble of slogging through all of the other crap that got submitted that year); and value for program committee members (you get to be one of the aforementioned greatest minds on the PC in a given year, and wear a fancy ribbon on your name badge when you are at the conference so everybody knows it).

These problems have been around for a long time. I'm not sure whether the Computer Science field has a worse case of these problems than other fields such as Physics or Mathematics. Clearly, the existence of the problems is not for lack of effort by the community; it's just not entirely obvious what to do.

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