Monday, June 14, 2010

Editor in Chief

In a bout of temporary insanity, I've agreed to serve as Editor-in-Chief of ACM Transactions on Sensor Networks, which is probably the top journal in the field. Feng Zhao, the Assistant Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia, has been the EIC since the journal's inception some six (?) years ago, and has done a fantastic job building up the journal and putting together a fantastic editorial board. I've been on the editorial board for a while and overall the quality of the submissions is pretty high. It's an honor to be selected for this role and I hope to keep up the great work that Feng has started.

Systems people tend to eschew journals in favor of conference publications, but I still think that TOSN has an important role to play in the sensor nets community. We need a place to publish longer, more thorough papers than what you can typically cram into a 14-page conference submission. We need a place for papers of high quality that just won't make it into a decent conference -- retrospectives, position papers, surveys, and so forth.

Of course, a major problem with journal submissions (and TOSN in particular) is the very long review cycle. It's just not acceptable for papers to take a year (or more!) to get reviews back. Having served as an associate editor I know how hard it is to corral reviews from good people and get things done in a timely fashion. Of course, some AE's are better at cracking the whip than others. We also need more regular turnover of the editorial board membership to avoid burnout.

Coming into the job, I have three main ideas for how to improve TOSN's standing in the community. Of course I'm open to any and all suggestions beyond these:

1. Improving the connection between TOSN and sensor network conferences. I think it's important that we formalize a process whereby the best papers from SenSys, IPSN, and other venues are fast-tracked to TOSN. We should be more proactive about this and give authors a chance to use TOSN as a venue for publishing a "journalized" version of a good conference paper. This has been done informally for a while but I plan to make the process much more overt.

2. Encouraging submissions of survey papers, article versions of PhD dissertations, and retrospectives. We need more outreach to the community to make it clear that we want these kinds of submissions. Again, this is mainly about being more proactive about soliciting these papers and getting the word out.

3. Introducing special issues. Feng made the decision to avoid special issues in the early life of the journal, for the good reason that it was important to establish TOSN before branching out to specialized topics. Now that TOSN is well established, I think the time is right to have 1 or 2 special issues a year, especially on topics that may be difficult to publish in a conventional manner. One example would be a special issue on industry experiences with sensor networks. If you have suggestions for special issues (or better yet, would like to serve as editor for one!) please let me know.


  1. Can you explain to someone who has little experience with journals (and none in the sensor networks community) what is keeping a journal from having, say, a 1-month (or less) turnaround time?

  2. can Ph.D. students be editors? :)

  3. Anon #1 - The turnaround time is a combination of factors. It usually takes a while to find reviewers for papers, since once a paper comes in it is assigned to an associate editor, who has to select reviewers - and it might take a few weeks for enough reviewers to agree. Then there is quite a long wait for the reviews to trickle in - although we aim for 8 weeks or so, many people take much longer (especially since there is no hard deadline and journal papers tend to be much longer than conference submissions). The real problem is the long tail in each of the steps.

    Anon #2 - Generally we prefer associate editors to have a PhD and be pretty well established in the field. However, it is not uncommon for a senior PhD student to be asked to provide a review of a paper, especially if that paper is very close to their area of expertise.

  4. What about creating a larger "technical journal committee" (TJC) for a journal, much like a TPC for a conference (e.g., 30 people)?

    By agreeing to serve on the TJC for the duration of 6 months - 1 year, you agree to:

    - Review approximately X papers during that time
    - Agree to review each paper within 4 weeks

    On the flip side, this is actually seen as a service to the community (and honor akin to serving on a high-profile PC). This is unlike journal reviewing today, where there's no / little recognition of reviewers.

    Further, I could imagine a few things helping:

    - Better batching: Monthly deadlines for consideration for submission (i.e., you need to submit by the 1st of the month to be considered for that month), with the goal of returning a review within 2 months of that 1st of the month deadline.

    Further, by allowing some batching, this reduces the "interrupt-driven" nature of journal reviewing, and allows editor / assoc editor / the TJC to consider a few papers in a batch (which also helps with normalization of reviews.)

    Finally, it allows a reviewer to adopt this service to the community every few years, but feel more comfortable turning down reviews at other times. Notice we already do the same when agreeing to serve on PCs, and when declining other PC / journal review requests that coincide with these duties.

    - Better normalization: Because I get asked to review journal articles in a more "one-off, ad-hoc" fashion, it's more difficult to maintain that hypothetical mental bar about what should be published and what not, particularly with a possible solution of "revise and resubmit".

    - Better definitive answers: The existence of "major revision and resubmit" as a possible result is a killer for journal submissions, in my opinion. This drags on the reviewing process for authors, reviewers, and editors, and I'm not sure leads to any better solution. Indeed, if we think of conference submissions, it's possible to pick out that, say, bottom 25% that are clear rejects, but most of what currently sits in the "weak reject" category for conferences (which, on average, doesn't have a chance of acceptance), could all fit in the "major revise and resubmit" category.

    This has been one of the most frustrating part of journal reviews, from my opinion, in that the duties to review a single paper rarely end. Even when I might give a reject, another reviewer might say "major revisions", and I'm either myself or several other reviewers go through another round. Which in turn leave potential reviewers less likely to review future submissions.

    As a side question, do you have any idea about the submission and acceptance rates for journals such as TOSN, TON, and TOCS? And the acceptance rates conditioned on whether the first round returned a "minor revision" or "major revision" result? I really have no idea what these numbers look like.

  5. Incidentally, Mike, this is very much like what VLDB has done -- no more once a year paper submissions. Instead, you submit to a journal ("Proceedings of VLDB") and a standing TPC turns around reviews in 30 days. There's often an opportunity to revise but only if the reviews feelystrongly about this -- I'd guess (though I really don't know) that something like 50% of the papers are rejected off the bat. If your paper is accepted it gets to be presented in the next VLDB conference.

    In the case of VLDB this isn't a journal replacement (the DB community still has TODS, VLDBJ, etc) but it is proof that the model you suggest can be made to work. As both a review and author I find it to be a preferable model to either the tradition conference or journal process.

  6. Personally, I absolutely don't agree on giving any kind of priority to "journalized" versions of Conference papers (SenSys, IPSN, whatever). Most of the times these "journalized" versions are just uselessly verbose versions of the same work/results. The formal requirement of including at least a 30-50% of new contributions in the journal manuscript is almost never fulfilled. At most, the authors come up with some very intuitive and easy-to-be-found simulations-type solutions.
    I really don't see the point in publishing for a second time the same exact work that has been already published in a top-level international Conference. I agree with the other 2 suggestions though, Matt, but on this one I suspect that the only final result and aim is to give to the same people a second opportunity to publish their results, while the journal should serve all the community and not a small group of elected researchers.

  7. I'd like the suggestion that involves more industrial activities into this journal. actually our group have been active in industrial standard issue related to sensor network for a long time. but it seems it's very hard to publish "industrial" kind of paper. typically because of lack of some sophisticated math equations. but it tries to solve real problem faced(or proposed) by industry which is a little bit different from academic view. for example, the problem of scheduling and channel hopping: profs try to give an optimization methods while industry want a step by step protocol. also for network-wide sycn: it is assumed to be done by many papers but actually this is a big problem in industry

  8. Matt, talk to the folks running TOCHI. They have introduced several systematic changes to really increase the review cycle.

  9. I've also been pitching a version of what Mike suggests and also what Sam reports VLDB has done to the HCI community for about 1-2 years now... we haven't had the follow-through unfortunately (several people are excited but I can't do everything I have on my plate already).


Startup Life: Three Months In

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