Publishing calculus

For those of you reading this blog who are not academic computer scientists:  In CS, most of the publishing is done through conference proceedings.  Conference submissions, unlike in many other fields, consists of full-fledged papers which undergo a single cycle of peer review with an up-or-down decision at the end; these full papers are then published as such in the conference proceedings.  The conference paper cycle is preferred because the time-to-publish is much, much faster than journals—which is much better suited towards the fast-paced nature of CS research. However, journal publications are still required and necessary for tenure and promotion at most places.  And, at least according to conventional wisdom, journal articles are seen as more “complete” records of research results (often a journal article will combine and build upon results from several conference papers).

Because the journal review and publication cycle can be so slow compared to the conference review and publication schedule, conferences have become highly competitive—in fact, the top conferences in CS, most would argue, are more selective and more prestigious than most CS journals.  The slow journal publication timeline, some argue, has led to the proliferation of CS conferences (and the reduced value of attending conferences, which in many cases these days consist mostly of those presenting papers), which, some argue, leads to even slower timelines for journal publishing.  (There was a lot of discussion around the blogosphere and in the Communications of the ACM about this very issue last year [see these editorials]—John Dupuis at Confessions of a Science Librarian has a great set of posts summarizing the discussion here and here.)

This leads to some interesting calculus when it comes time to publish and submit some results.  If something is brand-new and never published, clearly it goes to a conference.  Conventional wisdom might say that if it’s building upon something you’ve published at a conference, or building upon several other papers, then send it in to a journal.  Or should you, particularly if you know it might be years before your paper sees the light of day, if at all?  Should a journal still get your best and most complete work, or is it worth instead sending it to a highly competitive conference?

I currently have a journal article under submission.  I originally submitted it in 2008.  It has already gone through three cycles of review (original submission plus 2 revisions), and yet it is no closer to being published today than it was 2 years ago.  The main contributions of the work have already been disseminated via a couple of conference publications, but there is still substantial new work represented too—although this work is now more than 2 years old.  The project has moved well beyond what’s represented in that journal article.  And yet, it continues to live in that special purgatory—not rejected, yet refusing to be accepted.

At this point, I will probably submit it for one more round of review.  I could submit it to another journal, but there are problems there, too.  I’d probably be looking at another couple of years to a decision, and I have no idea if another journal would be more or less likely to accept this article for publication.  Plus I’d have to deal with a whole new set of reviewers and editors, some or all of whom might have much different ideas about how I should present and frame my work for their journal.  Also complicating things is the fact that my work straddles just enough subfields, and is unconventional enough, that finding an appropriate journal is tricky.  (Since my research falls into subfields X, Y, Z, and a bit of Q, X journals often say “this is really Y work”, Y journals say “nope, this is Z work”, etc.)

So the thought has crossed my mind, more than once, that perhaps I should forget about publishing this work in a journal and just repurpose it into one or more conference papers, and target highly selective conferences.  That way I still get “credit” for publishing in a top location without the super-long peer review cycle.  The fact that I’m even considering this shows you how weird and messed up the whole publishing model in CS has become.

The problem is that even though I have tenure, I still do need the journal pubs if I want to be promoted to full professor.  So most likely I’ll continue to jump through the hoops to get my work published in a journal—even though by the time that happens, if it happens, the work will be out-of-date.

The question is:  will this article be published before I’m ready to send out my next journal article?  I wish I had a more definitive answer than “maybe”.