Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cross-Cultural Learning Curve: Sending a Paper to Science

We decided to submit our paper on MIC and MINE to Science it's a venue that my co-authors were familiar with and very interested in applying to.  I was happy to go along.  Moreover, it seemed like the right venue, as we wanted to reach a large audience of people who might be able to use the approach. 

Sending a paper into Science feels very different than sending to a FOCS/STOC/SODA or SIGCOMM conference, or to a CS journal.  I think there are many reasons for this.  (And I'm trying not to offer judgment, one way or another -- but rather to describe the experience.)

1.  There's a feeling that there's not really a second shot.  If you submit a paper to a major CS conference, and it doesn't get in, you revise as needed and can try for the next one.  (Some papers get submitted 3, 4, or more times before getting in.)  For a journal like Science, they'll only review a small fraction of submitted papers, and if your paper doesn't make it in, you're not going to get a second shot there;  you'll have to find another, arguably less desirable venue.  (SIGCOMM can feel more that way, more than FOCS/STOC, but definitely not to the same extreme.)
2.  Perhaps correspondingly, there's a greater focus on polish of the final form before submission.  The article should be ready for publication in the journal, which has a high standard in terms of the appearance of the articles, so there's a sense that it should look good.  This means much more time is spent on writing (and re-writing, and re-writing), on trying to figure what the perfect graphic is, on making that graphic look awesome, and other aspects of the presentation.  On the whole, CS papers are, shall we say, much less presentation focused.
3.  The paper will (likely) be read by a much broader (and larger) audience.  This again changes how one thinks about presentation.
4.  For many fields, a Science article is extremely important, much more valued for a student author than even a FOCS/STOC/SIGCOMM paper.  (I realize that, in computer science, venues like Science and Nature have not historically been given an especially high importance.)
5.  Journals like Science have very strict rules regarding various things.  For example, we were not supposed to publish the work in another venue (like a conference) before hand.  Once the paper was accepted, there was an "embargo" -- we weren't supposed to talk about it before publication without permission, and we could not announce the paper had been accepted.  In CS, we have the arxiv and other online repositories that are used widely by theoreticians;  even in areas where double-blind conference submissions are the norm, such rules are not taken anywhere nearly as seriously as by Science, as far as I can tell.

I've also been truly surprised by the amount of reaction the paper has generated.  Sure, I had been told that getting a paper in Science is a big deal, but it's another thing to sort of see it in action.  (I haven't seen this big a reaction since -- well, since Giorgos, John, and I put the Groupon paper up on the arxiv.  But that was very unusual, and this reaction has I think been bigger.)  There's definitely a human interest angle that is a part of that -- brothers working together on science makes a more readable news story -- but also there was much more effort behind the scenes.  There's the sense that an article in Science is really a big chance to get your work noticed, so you prepare for that as well.   

If I had to describe it in one word, I'd say publishing in Science feels much more "intense" than usual CS publications.  The competitive aspect -- that some people in CS feel is very important (the "conferences are quality control" argument) and others do not -- feels like it's taken one level up here.  Maybe the stakes are bigger.  As an outsider, I was both amazed by and bemused by some aspects of the process.  Even having been through it, I don't feel qualified to offer a grounded opinion as to which is better for the scientific enterprise, though I certainly feel it's an interesting issue to discuss.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. How did you find the quality of the reviews? Feel free to reply diplomatically, and we will read between the lines. :)

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I think the review quality was overall very high. It's probably worthy of a post or discussion on its own at some later date, but there were a number of reviewers, and I think the reviews added significantly to the final quality of the paper.

GASARCH said...

How was the time between submission
and getting the referees report?

The one time I refereed for Science
they had a very very short deadline-
I think 2 weeks. So I assumed that
the author is informed quickly.
Is this true?

Not being able to put an article on arXiv or (I assume) your own website
before publication seems like a big negative and way behind he times.

Can you post the article someplace
after it appears?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I'd have to go back and check, but it was definitely more than a couple of weeks to get reviews. More like a couple of months.

We cannot post the article after it appears. However, Science gave us a link so that people could download the article; it is on the page we constructed for the project.

Anonymous said...


Maybe a silly question, but how does it handle catagorial data? (for example 0,1 but also 0,1,2,3 )