Research Publication Modes Need to be Reengineered

What does dissemination of research mean in the day of the ``web''? There was a time when publishing meant sending a typed copy of a manuscript to a journal editor; two years later, if you were lucky, you would have published a revised version of your article that satisfied the editor, referees, and possibly yourself. Then, we began to notice that in Computer Science at least, timeliness was critical, and the value of conference papers was recognized by the research community. Of course that recognition rarely extended to university administrations, and the ``conference versus journal'' battle is still being fought at many schools.

In the bad old days, the role of professional societies such as ACM or IEEE was crucial. They appointed the editors, who in turn controlled the limited access to journal space and tried to fill that space with material of the highest feasible quality. Today, the amateur has returned to the world of research publication. Anyone can write anything, put it up on the web, and have it read by far more people than would ever see it in a journal.

What are the implications of this new reality for the way we disseminate and evaluate research? There are powerful changes coming in the role of the professional societies, referees, and editors. There also opportunities to rethink process of tenure and evaluation at research universities.

Ownership of Intellectual Property

When journals held sway, their economics forced professional societies and commercial publishers to guard closely their copyright to the research articles therein. Today, the societies are rethinking their approach to intellectual property, but they need to go much further. Recall, the purpose of the societies is to facilitate dissemination of research, not to inhibit it. There is simply no excuse for a publisher to ask for more than the right to publish, leaving control in the hands of the author who will undoubtedly get the bulk of exposure from electronic access to the work. If the publication of a journal or conference proceedings is not economically viable without exclusive right to the contents, then it is time to stop publishing paper copies.

Controlling the Clutter

That is not to say the function served by journals, their editors, and referees is archaic or superfluous. The more research material there is out there, the harder it is for the researcher to focus on what needs to be examined. Journals, and to a lesser extent conference proceedings, do provide the service of selectivity.

Today, instead of journal editors, the societies need to lend their prestige to a network of area-editors who would be charged with knowing, evaluating for validity (perhaps with the help of referees), and eventually creating a web page pointing to the most important on-line documents related to a particular subject. These subjects can be organized in a hierarchy, with different degrees of focus, just as today there are broad journals like JACM, narrower journals and conferences, and highly specialized workshops, each playing an important role in the research dissemination picture. The role of area-editor should be similar in prestige and responsibility to that of journal editors or program-committee chairs today.

The Tenure Chase

I have for many years exposited, to any university official who would listen, the slogan ``impact, not publications; conferences not journals.'' I believe it fully. Letters from a large number of people in the candidate's field outlining the importance of their research, whether it be through papers, software creation, work on standards committees, or whatever, is a better gauge of research achievement than the naive counting of papers.

Whether the majority of institutions will eventually start thinking about impact rather than publications remains to be seen. But whether or not they do, another profound change in the evaluation process is coming, courtesy of the ``web.'' As a supplement to letters measuring impact, it is now possible to count hits on a web document or page. It is time to change ``publish or perish'' to ``get hit or get out.'' While counting papers is next to irrelevant, since almost anything can be published if one finds the right journal or conference, the web allows us to measure something that couldn't before be measured: readership.

It has been argued that it is too easy to stimulate hits on a web page or even generate them yourself, mechanically. Admittedly, telling real hits from bogus is not a trivial problem, and I'm not going to suggest I have an algorithm that cannot be defeated. However, if the practice of measuring web hits becomes important, I suspect that there will be adequate study of the patterns of hits that represent real interest, and we shall be able to glean useful information from observed patterns.