Monday, June 30, 2008

Strange Transactions on Information Theory Policies

The journal where I've published the most now is the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. (Probably because when I write any journal article in information theory, I send it there, while my other work is more scattered.) So I hope it's clear that, as a journal, I hold it in high regard. That being said, they have some strange policies that I just don't understand. (If you're not familiar with the journal and want to check what I'm saying, their submission guidelines are here.)

First and foremost, they have a distinction between "regular papers" and "correspondence". As they briefly make unclear, "a correspondence item will have one point to make briefly and without adornment, whereas a regular paper will be a more well-rounded treatment of a problem area." In the old days, as far as I can tell, this distinction didn't matter much, and roughly the distinction boiled down to length -- for me, long papers were regular papers, shorter papers were correspondence. Perhaps in the IT community there was more prestige for a regular paper, but I've never been aware of it -- at least in my mind citation count would give a better idea of a paper's importance than its nominal type -- and never cared.

This strangeness didn't become important until recently, when to deal with the apparent problem that the Transactions was becoming too big and thereby using too much paper [yes, I know this shouldn't be a problem, but they still send out lots of paper copies], they limited correspondence items to 5 journal pages.

This, to me, is just strange. First, I dislike the idea of page limits in general for journals. The journal is supposed to be the "permanent record" of a scientific result. If it takes 50 pages to present the result, then that's what it takes. A journal certainly has a right (indeed, perhaps a duty) to have authors properly edit a work so that there's not a gross amount of wasted verbiage, but to set a priori page limits, in my mind, goes against the purported purpose of journal publication.

Second, I don't see how this page limit jibes with this (already strange) regular paper/correspondence distinction. Sometimes, presenting a single point briefly takes more than 5 pages. (Arguably, it often takes this long, if one wants to do a suitable job presenting previous work, or substantial mathematical setup must be done.)

As an example, I submitted a paper to ToIT. I thought it was clearly a correspondence, according to their definition, since it really covered a single thematic issue. Given the policy, I wasted at least a day cutting things from my version to make it a (just over) 5 page submission version. (I had tables and a picture -- it really was a hard exercise to cut that last page.)

The reviews came back, and most of the complaints were questions of the form, "Why don't you talk about Z?", where in fact my discussion of Z was something I took out to get things down to 5 pages. (Duh.) The editor asked the editor-in-chief -- no exceptions to the 5 page rule.

So the editor, smartly, decided that I had a 6-page regular paper. While I appreciated the solution, the whole thing just highlighted the silliness of the policy, and perhaps the strangeness in distinguishing "regular papers" and "correspondence" in the first place.

Another policy I object to is their decision not to publish already-published conference articles unless there is "substantially new" material. (This is not spelled out, but I have been told the rough figure is "30% of the article must be new", whatever that means.) Again, in my mind, this goes against the purported purpose of a journal as the final record of a research result. Conference papers are, in my mind, dramatically more likely to be wrong, and at the very least have generally had little feedback in the reviewing process. A journal is supposed to provide more in terms of reviewing; if a conference paper and journal paper ended up identical, I'd have no problem with it -- and I'd congratulate the author on writing such a solid conference version (assuming I didn't question the reviewing practices of the journal).

I can understand this policy in the context of copyright. An IEEE journal can't (re-)publish something another organization has the copyright to, and an author should understand this. But when the paper was in an IEEE conference -- what's the problem?

These two policies interact in a very strange way in the context of the IEEE International Symposium on Information Theory (ISIT) -- the big IT conference. ISIT papers are -- get this -- 5 pages. One might naturally hope that ISIT papers could be turned right over into Transactions correspondences -- and get the benefit of more complete reviewing and editing for that "final version". But not, it seems, under the current policy that the journal version must have something "new" over the conference version. But I can't add anything new to my 5 page conference version without going over that arbitrary 5 page correspondence limit. Am I the only one that sees something wrong with that picture? (And yes, I have ISIT papers that I won't bother submitting to ToIT, because they're really correspondences that should/would be 6-7 pages once I add that 30% new stuff in.) If they're going to not publish things from conferences, even IEEE conferences, then having a 5 page ISIT limit and a 5 page correspondence limit is, in my mind, just strange.


Anonymous said...

Aren't ISIT papers just one page? I thought only the submitted paper was 5 pages, while the conference version had to be a single page. Maybe this changed.

Anonymous said...

The correspondence section of the IEEE-IT Transactions will be most likely gradually stopped, see the relevant announcement on first page of the June issue of the IEEE Information Theory Society Newsletter

Anonymous said...


You'll be happy to know that the correspondence section has been officially discontinued. There will only be regular papers from now on, with no page limit. Hallelulah!

Regarding the issue of republishing conference papers in the journal this has been a topic of furious debate ever since ISIT starting publishing 5 pagers in 2005. Nothing really much has been resolved. I myself do not see the point in republishing exactly the same thing.

Dan Costello

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Glad to hear correspondences will be retired; I hadn't known!

Dan -- the "reason" for re-publishing is if you believe (as I do) that conferences are not suitable for performing functions that have historically belonged to journals: specifically, providing reviewing that both checks for correctness and may lead to other changes in a paper. If reviewers find that a conference paper is acceptable as is, publishing the paper in a journal still provides a "stamp" that is of a different type and quality than a conference.

Now, this may be changing as we move more and more to electronic publication, but I think it's still true now.

Anonymous said...

This situation is just a symptom of the fact that CS hasn't yet made its mind about what a conference is. On the one hand we say a conference submission is just an abstract not reviewed for correctness, on the other we behave as it was a journal publication (or even better than) when it comes to promotion, publication in another journal and priority claims even though in some cases substantial portions of the argument are missing from the conference version and the paper has never been fully vetted for correctness.

Unknown said...

I can't add anything new to my 5 page conference version without going over that arbitrary 5 page correspondence limit.

Not that it matters with the discontinuation of correspondences, but this actually is untrue. The font size requirements are different for these two formats, so you can actually add quite a bit more to the extended abstract and keep it under five pages in the correspondence version.

But there are weirdnesses. After the 5-page restriction had been announced, but before it was enforced, the editor suggested that my 14-page paper be a correspondence without suggesting that it be cut down! (It ultimately was a regular paper.) My advisor also recommended publishing correspondences, saying that they generally went through a shorter publication process, but my experience does not bear this out. This, perhaps like the 30% rule, is one of those rumors that might or might not be true, depending on whom you ask (and who your editor is).