Academic research cannot exist in a vacuum. The ideas it generates must be presented, discussed, promoted, improved, and applied. This requires venues for publication (papers, articles, and books) and interaction (conferences, for example). The venues that exist today don’t seem to be supporting academic researchers in the way that they need and deserve. In particular, my recent experience with IEEE, one of the foremost organizations which supports these needs for technical researchers, has shown that its publishing model needs repair.
IEEE is a venerable organization with a long history of serving the publishing and conference needs of several technical research communities. I’m grateful that IEEE has provided this important forum for the presentation and exchange ideas. I believe it’s time, however, for IEEE to take a fresh look at itself and how it’s doing. As a professional who has worked for many years in information technology, business intelligence, and now information visualization in particular, I reinvent myself again and again to remain effective. IEEE must do the same. I believe it’s long overdue.
As one of the only games in town, IEEE’s publishing services play a critical role in technical research. Because this work is important to the world, IEEE bears a responsibility to encourage researchers to produce their best work and to distribute it to all those who might benefit from or contribute to it. Information visualization (infovis) researchers aren’t getting the kind of support they need from IEEE, and I doubt that most are even aware of this, for they have probably never encountered a properly functioning publishing model. Infovis is too important to suffer from a publishing model that undermines its efforts, message, and development. Here are the fundamental problems that I’ve observed:
- The pool of potential contributors is being kept too narrow.
- Readership is too narrow.
- Resources necessary to produce high-quality publications are inadequate.
- The medium of publication doesn’t fit the nature of infovis, and therefore fails to present it effectively.
- Print is no longer financially viable for publications of this type.
I would like to describe these problems by telling the story of my recent experience with Visualization Viewpoints, a regular section of IEEE’s periodical Computer Graphics and Applications. I’m going to take my time with this and risk seeming long-winded, because I want to convey the issues and their implications thoughtfully and clearly.
I had the honor last October of delivering the capstone presentation at InfoVis 2007, one of IEEE’s conferences and perhaps the best ongoing infovis event in the world. Immediately after finishing my presentation, I was introduced to the editor of Visualization Viewpoints who invited me to write an article for the publication. I saw this as an opportunity to strengthen my connections with the infovis research community, which I was delighted to pursue. Once I received a more formal invitation along with instructions via email, here are the events that followed:
- I make my living by writing, teaching, and speaking. I am fortunate in that I usually get paid well for my work. In addition to paid engagements, I also take on multiple projects each year without compensation, but I must be selective about how I invest my time. I assumed that I would not be paid for writing an article for Visualization Viewpoints, which was fine, but in lieu of compensation, I requested a complimentary subscription as a gesture of gratitude for writing an article and a way to make me feel welcome as a contributor. I have received this kind gesture from other publishers in the past, so it seemed a natural request that would be embraced without question. I was surprised when my request started a long series of emails between the editor of Visualization Viewpoints and a host of others within the organization, resulting in a bureaucratic process that never did result in an actual response. This would have cost IEEE nothing but postage. My subscription would not have increased the cost of printing or administration, nor would it have prevented a paid subscription that they would have received otherwise. A complimentary subscription for anyone who contributes an article to the publication would go a long way toward building goodwill and a sense of community. Is there really any question that someone who takes the time to write an article and go through the lengthy process of working with a publisher, deserves a gesture of thanks equaling the cost of postage? After many days of waiting, I was asked by the editor-in-chief of Computer Graphics and Applications—a friend of mine—if I would be willing to waive the complimentary subscription and proceed with the article nevertheless. Despite how absurd it seemed to me that IEEE would deny a request, I agreed to drop the matter.
- I wrote and submitted the article ahead of schedule. Later, upon receiving feedback from two anonymous reviewers (peer reviews), I made appropriate revisions, once again in a timely matter. As someone who hasn’t gone through the formal peer review process since graduate school, I was surprised to discover that the reviewers remained anonymous. Something felt awkward about receiving anonymous feedback in a peer review process. Why would my peers need anonymity? Why shouldn’t I be able to know the qualifications of my reviewers, if not their actual identifies? Cloaking the process in anonymity seemed to indicate a level of discomfort with critique that I didn’t expect to find to this degree in academia. I think the need for anonymity should be questioned and evaluated, even if it arose from what seemed like good reasons in the past.)
- I made timely revisions in response to feedback from a copyeditor, once again in a timely manner. The one controversy that arose during the editing process concerned the two affiliations that I listed after my name: Perceptual Edge (my consultancy) and U.C. Berkeley (my academic affiliation). I included them both because doing so reinforced the message of the article, which made a case for building better bridges between infovis research and the greater world out there, including the business world. I was told that only one affiliation could be listed. Why? Because this was the policy. I explained my reasons for wanting to include both, but only after several people at IEEE weighed in was my request finally granted. I persevered, not only because I wanted the article to be as meaningful and effective as possible, but also due to my resistance to policies that seem arbitrary, silly, or counter-productive.
- Even though I completed all of my responsibilities in a timely fashion, IEEE didn’t begin work on the composition of the article (that is, formatting it for printing) until close to the publication date, which caused everyone involved to be stressed and rushed. During the composition process, layout problems were introduced that should never occur in an infovis publication. For example, figures (screen prints in this case) were rendered so small, they couldn’t be read. Having to point out the obvious and go through composition iterations to fix a problem like this is something an author should never encounter when dealing with an infovis publication. Anyone who cares about visual design would have objected to the problems that I pointed out. In an attempt to avoid the lengthy back and forth process that involved (1) getting a PDF from IEEE, (2) requesting necessary changes, then (3) waiting for a revised PDF to arrive, which in turn introduced new problems that started the process over again (and again and again), I offered several times to have my own compositor do the work, and do so within IEEE’s requirements, thus saving everyone a great deal of time and frustration. My offers were always declined. Something that complicated this process even more was the fact that I was never allowed to communicate directly with the compositor, but forced instead to work through a go-between, an arrangement that was inefficient and prone to error. Despite the last-minute rush and the frustrating process, the layout problems were all fixed on time.
- The clincher occurred at the end. On the day before the publication was scheduled to go to the printer, without any advance warning, I was sent a “Transfer of Copyrights” form, and asked to sign it. I responded courteously, stating that I never give up my copyrights and explained why, but instead would happily grant all rights that IEEE needed to publish and distribute the article, without restriction. Several tense emails later, on the next day I was told that the article would be pulled from the publication because I wouldn’t give up my copyrights, despite the fact that I granted IEEE every right that was needed for publication and unrestricted distribution. In emails, I was accused of being ungrateful, disrespectful, and rude by withdrawing my article at the last minute. But I didn’t withdraw my article. I put a great deal of time and care into it, and couldn’t believe that IEEE would actually pull it from publication on the last day because I wasn’t willing to give up my rights as its author.
Following this fiasco, the Editor-in-Chief of Computer Graphics and Applications worked valiantly to forge a compromise between the keepers of copyrights at IEEE and me so the article could at least be published online. I agreed to sign IEEE’s transfer of copyrights form if they would simply state in it that they would not alter the article without my approval. IEEE refused to do anything that involved a change or addition to its form.
Much of the work that goes into publishing a periodical at IEEE is actually done, not by paid staff, but by volunteers who work hard without pay because they care. Even the Editor-in-Chief of Computer Graphics and Applications is a volunteer. I appreciate and respect the work of these volunteers. It’s a shame that their efforts are undermined by a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has little or no connection to infovis.
The frustrating experience that I’ve described—not just for me, but for everyone involved—brought several problems at IEEE to light. Let’s begin with the copyrights issue. I have worked with several publishers and I have never had to give up my rights as author. Most modern publishers know that they don’t need to strip authors of their rights in order to do their job. They’re happy to take over copyrights if the author doesn’t mind, but they also understand that these rights have been granted by law to authors for a reason—no one is in a better position to preserve the integrity of the written work than the person who wrote it. They understand how ludicrous it is to insist on rights that they don’t really need. All a publisher needs are the rights to publish and distribute the work. They don’t need rights to revise the work, translate the work, incorporate the work into other publications (in full or in part), or allow others to publish the work, without the author’s permission. In fact, it is in their interest as well as the author’s to preserve the integrity and credibility of the work by making sure that any action which could possibly place it in jeopardy is reviewed and approved by the author.
Despite several requests, at no time did I receive an explanation from those who manage IEEE’s copyrights policies for why they couldn’t publish my article unless I surrendered to them my rights as author. I was told over and over again that I was the first person who ever challenged this policy. If this is true, it saddens me. How did academic publishing get to this place where everyone surrenders their legal rights routinely and without question? At one point I was forwarded an assurance via email by one of the volunteers that IEEE would never alter an article without consulting the author, but this conflicts with the transfer of copyrights form which grants them this right. The person who offered this assurance admitted the contradiction between what IEEE claims it would never do and explicit statements to the contrary in its copyrights form, but he nevertheless discouraged any further attempts to get IEEE to fix the form as pointless. I believe this is dumb and harmful bureaucracy—resistance to change at its most absurd. And this from an institution that supports the needs of academia, society’s beacon of intelligence. The fact that other publishers handle copyrights as I requested and do so without any problems led me to believe that I have never received an explanation for IEEE’s copyrights policy because a reasonable explanation doesn’t exist. If anyone knows otherwise, I’m all ears.
The fact that members of IEEE’s staff have remained hidden behind a protective barrier of well-intentioned volunteers who have no authority to change policy is troubling. Any time people with power become isolated in this manner, they lose the ability to lead. Calcification sets in, strengthening the walls that separate them from those they supposedly serve and those on whom they rely to serve.
Apparently, IEEE as a publisher has been struggling to make ends meet. I have learned that its print periodicals are “literally fighting for their economic lives at the moment, and struggling to define their mission in this world of the Web and shrinking interest in professional societies as a source of information.” I’m not surprised. One response has been to reduce the budget, primarily by reducing staff. The result?—it is now more difficult to produce publications of high quality. For example, having a compositor who actually knows a thing or two about infovis would help Computer Graphics and Applications produce, with less effort, publications that actually incorporate the best practices that infovis teaches, but budget cuts have made this impossible. The world is changing, especially with the rise of the Internet, and publishers of all types are adapting their models to survive in this new world. When someone like me comes along who has worked with publishers that have remained successful despite these changes, it might have been useful for IEEE to consider my concerns and suggestions. When current models no longer work, one must view the situation from new perspectives. This requires, at the very least, opening one’s eyes. A publication that features visualization research in particular ought to know a thing or two about using its eyes.
One of my contacts at IEEE suggested that I perhaps found their practices unacceptable because I didn’t understand academic publishing. I do understand and appreciate the fact that academic publishing should be managed with the highest possible standards for content—peer reviews and all that. What I don’t understand is why academic authors should have fewer rights than other authors or be expected to tolerate any of the other problems that I’ve observed. One such problem is that the audience is but a fraction of its potential. Let’s consider this problem next.
Should an academic publication about information visualization only find its way to university libraries? I’m sure that a small percentage of subscriptions belong to non-academic institutions as well (for example, corporate research groups), along with a smattering of individuals, but why not shoot for broader distribution to everyone who has a keen interest in information visualization, including software professionals and data analysts? Several worthwhile changes would be required to encourage this:
- The subscription price of $74 for six issues (rate for people who aren’t members of IEEE) would have to be reduced.
- A few articles in each issue would need to address the needs or interests of more than a few academicians, preferably by offering practical solutions to prevalent real-world problems.
- The language used in the articles should avoid esoteric terms and unnecessarily complicated explanations.
Not only would a broader audience benefit from these publications, these publications would benefit from a broader audience. I’m not just talking about greater revenues; I’m referring to a greater exchange of ideas. It’s too easy for people who rarely venture outside of academia to become isolated and parochial. Plenty of people outside of academia understand infovis and could contribute to its progress.
Rather than cutting the budget and reducing staff, which will only cause these publications to slide more speedily toward oblivion, perhaps it’s time to stop printing and mailing them in favor of electronic media only. Other than the fact that people don’t like change, what’s the loss? Electronic versions seem especially appropriate for infovis publications anyway, because infovis itself is a computer-based experience. Another benefit is the fact that articles will no longer need to be tightly restricted in length, which will give authors more opportunity to express their content meaningfully and will remove many of the challenges that compositors face, especially if individual articles are published as separate PDF files.
My experience with IEEE’s publishing wing has been frustrating, but mostly it has made me sad. I find it impossible to ignore anything that hinders progress in the field of information visualization. Many of the best innovations come from the intersection of disciplines, perspectives, and ideas. Because I have never worked with an academic publisher, I come from a different perspective—one that might actually be useful.
I’ve written this to encourage discussion about these issues, hoping that useful changes might still result from this experience. Rather than an attack on IEEE and other publishers who support academic research, this is a plea to do this better from someone who cares. I would love to hear from others who have had similar experiences, as well as those who can articulate contrasting views. Rather than letting it go to waste, I have published the article, which I originally wrote for Visualization Viewpoints—What Ordinary People Need Most from Information Visualization Today—in my monthly Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter. I hope you read it and find it useful.