Issue No. 03 - May-June (2014 vol. 31)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MS.2014.75
Forrest Shull , Software Engineering Institute of Carnegie Mellon University
IEEE Software Editor-in-Chief Forrest Shull discusses his tenure and looks at the initiatives during this time. He also welcomes Robert Blumen as department editor for Software Engineering Radio and puts out a call for more hosts to contribute to the Software Engineering Radio podcast interviews.
THE CLOCK IS TICKING on my last year as editor in chief. It's now either a bit over two months into 2014 (as I write this) or just under halfway through (by the time you read this), so this is an opportune time to revisit goals and priorities while there's still time for corrective action. Managing IEEE Software for the past three years has been a fun and fascinating endeavor, in no small part because this period has been one of such flux for scientific publications. Many of the old models for doing business have been changing and continue to change drastically, as does our understanding of the types and media of technical content that provide value to readers. One of the perks of this job has been the exciting and rewarding sense of helping invent new solutions that provide value in our brave new world in collaboration with like-minded colleagues at the IEEE Computer Society1 and elsewhere across the software engineering field.
Trusted with managing the health of this magazine, and faced with a context where models are changing and the new paradigms aren't yet well understood, my modus operandi has been to pilot as many worthwhile new approaches as possible and put resources into the ones with the most promising results. So I feel that I owe you, our readers, a report on some of those results and the associated lessons learned. I hope you'll find this look “under the hood” of our periodical to be insightful and interesting—and if something inspires you to share your own ideas or even volunteer to get involved, even better!
To set some context, the overall picture is healthy. The latest numbers that I've seen show that subscriptions are on the increase, especially of our recently introduced digital edition, where the increases have been huge. The number of submissions and our impact factor have remained steady during a time when other scientific publications have seen large fluctuations. Still, we would always like to do better. Given the ever-increasing importance of software in our world and the rapid pace of change, the sky's the limit for the reach that we should have.
The Constants in the Equation
It's important to note that several things that provide constraints to our work have not—and will not—change: our mission, our volunteers, and our reliance on peer review.
The mission of bridging research and application is central to all that we do, with far-reaching implications on decisions large and small (including things that you wouldn't necessarily expect, such as the word limits of our articles, which are kept tight so as to convey the essential findings of research more easily to a practitioner audience). It's also a fairly unique mission, and given the size and scope of the software engineering field, I would welcome more publications in this space because I worry about potential disconnects between the research and practitioner communities. Rather than see them as competition, I would appreciate having other voices to help convey important takeaways to software developers and decision-makers. (But this is a topic for another column.)
We have access to many talented individuals who give of their time to make IEEE Software a success. Because we can't provide monetary inducements, we must make this an attractive proposition in other ways, visibility and exposure being key aspects. But more important is that IEEE Software's content becomes part of the history and fundamental underpinnings of software engineering in a way that many other venues for developer content do not. Our importance in academia and to teaching institutions also means that IEEE Software's content has an outsize role in influencing and training the next generation of practicing software engineers. More than that, however, the chance to be around other active and energized volunteers is a unique benefit that has a way of generating activity and energy all on its own.
Our Peer Review
Compared to other venues for disseminating new thinking about software engineering, such as practitioner-oriented blogs, conferences, and other magazines, our content requires a nontrivial amount of time between submission and print. This is due to the peer-review process that all article submissions go through. And while timeliness is something to prize, it doesn't come at the expense of thorough review. This is one of our unique added values and remains a cornerstone of the scientific endeavor. Far from a negative, it's one of our key selling points: there's no shortage of opinions available about software development, and helping separate the wheat from the chaff is one of the important services IEEE Software provides.
Some Goals from Day One
For my first column as editor in chief, way back in January/February 2011, I laid out several goals to help IEEE Software successfully navigate the changing landscape of scientific publishing as I then understood it. In publishing this agenda, I wanted to commit myself to some key priorities and attract other like-minded thinkers.
In a nutshell, my overarching goal for the magazine has always been for it to be more than “just” a piece of printed matter that shows up every couple of months or so. No matter how good our content, if that's the only way that interested readers can find it, all the material that's out there competing for attention will drown us out. So I've been looking to get our content into other venues and different media, as well as to find more opportunities for interacting with the community of software engineers. I started this job convinced we needed to move away from a model where we broadcast good content to one in which we supported a dialogue about good content—and a dialogue that continues across multiple locations and platforms, at that.
I intended to implement this overall goal in several specific ways.
Industry Experience Reports
Continuing the Insights department was one of my first priorities in 2011, and three years later, it's still going strong. Linda Rising created and then helmed this department in its early years, and more recently, Helen Sharp took over the role. We're currently in the process of transitioning to a new department editor who I know will continue the technical strength of this content. In 2011, I wrote, “Just as I believe that research isn't complete if it doesn't reach stakeholders who can benefit from it, I believe it also needs to be informed by hearing the real-life challenges and experiences of practitioners.” Insights has been a great venue for allowing this to happen.
Opportunities to Post Comments
This has been one area where we haven't been as successful as I would have liked, with a few notable exceptions. We're able to post a small number of articles online from each issue with the opportunity for readers to leave feedback. We do get comments—and interesting ones, at that—but only rarely do we get the critical mass and the back-and-forth of a timely dialog.
I have a couple of theories as to why this might be, and I particularly believe that the asynchronous nature of reaching our readership makes it hard to get enough people together on a given page at a given time (readers may find articles in print in the physical magazine, browsing in the digital edition, or years later through the digital library). On this point, I've come to believe that my original goal was unrealistic and have noted with satisfaction that the dialog occurs effectively but in more typical ways, for example, through the thoughtful letters to the editor that we get (which tend to be much longer than would easily fit into a comment at the end of an article) or, in at least one instance, on a peer-reviewed feature-length article that commented with great technical depth on a prior publication.
Having a presence at conferences was originally important to me for the visibility it provides the magazine. We've been successful at this: we have a presence and do outreach at numerous conferences every year to let members of the software engineering community know more about our magazine. More importantly, however, in a typical year we engage with four to five conferences in a more intensive way, usually by sponsoring best paper awards. Over the years, my thinking on this has evolved, and I see more benefits than I originally understood: best paper awards help recognize deserving authors, of course, but they also provide excellent exemplars of the kinds of practical yet rigorous content that we like to see in the magazine. In addition, participating in conferences in underserved geographic areas is one way in which we give back to the larger software engineering community. For example, for several years we've supported the African Conference on Software Engineering and Applied Computing (ACSEAC), the only conference focusing on that geographic region.
I often hear from readers that they still love the physical magazine itself—there's an undeniable attraction to being able to pick up an issue, flip through to see what catches your eye, and perhaps serendipitously come across some interesting content that you never would have thought to download based on titles or keywords alone. But I've always felt that it's important to build on this by producing other kinds of content and getting it out to software engineers in different ways.
Podcasts have long been one of my favorite media because they allow me to use time that would otherwise have been unproductive (for example, during my commute) to catch up on interesting technical content and hear it in the author's own voice. At this point in time, more of our regular departments have made the leap to podcasting, giving our editors another way of engaging with the audience. Our centerpiece, Software Engineering Radio, continues to draw 40,000 to 50,000 listeners per episode, demonstrating a real hunger for this type of content. (More on that in the sidebars.)
One Goal That Evolved
Many goals have come up, evolved, or been discarded over time. Some have proven fairly quickly to be unworkable, while others required some experimentation to understand the issues in play. At any rate, let me share just one of these initiatives, which is noteworthy due to the length of time we've been working on it and the amount of effort it requires: our annual Software Experts Summit (SES).
This began as a way of having our board members and other thought leaders associated with the magazine showcase some of their latest thinking at an open event, which was planned to coincide with our annual board meeting. We've always done our best to keep prices low for attendees and focus on providing an interesting and energizing day on a timely technical topic. We've also tried to make this as much about good technical presentations as it is about giving the audience a chance to interact with both each other and the featured experts.
Over the years, we've understood that SES is able to stand on its own. We've formed a lot of useful collaborations with the local software engineering communities in areas such as Munich, London, and Silicon Valley to bring together outstanding technical programs. Our SES event this year is particularly ambitious, showcasing our content and connection to thought leaders in India, a market where we should be better known (and from which we should draw more content), given the amount of software development going on there. Advisory board member Girish Suryanarayana of Siemens Technology and Services Pvt. Ltd. is spearheading the efforts required to bring us to this part of the world. See the ad on the inside front cover for more information.
Of course, all these experiments and innovations continue against a constant backdrop of strong departments, solid article submissions, and thorough peer reviews. It's important not to get too fixated on piloting new innovations at the expense of paying attention to the fundamentals. Managing this part of “the business” is in some ways even more important than new initiatives because without strong and relevant technical content, no amount of innovations in delivery or technology will help. So I'd like to thank the associate editors in chief, reviewers, and other volunteers who ensure timely and valuable peer review and maintain constantly timely and interesting departments.
In January 2015, a new editor in chief of IEEE Software will be officially in place, with new priorities and ideas to put into practice. I'm looking forward to a well-earned rest and the chance to see what new innovations are in the magazine's future.
I should close by putting the spotlight on the many people that help make IEEE Software happen, and happen so well. None of this would be possible without the very professional staff at the Computer Society, the volunteers who pour so much of themselves into this (and who keep me energized as well), and especially Hakan Erdogmus, the prior editor in chief who left things in such a strong position. It's a real pleasure to be working with all of you.
Want to share your feedback on what is working well or not-so-well for you? Ideas on other avenues we should be exploring? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. P. Montuschi and A. Benso, “Augmented Reading: The Present and Future of Electronic Scientific Publications,” Computer, vol. 47, no. 1, 2014, pp. 64–74.
Forrest Shull is assistant director for empirical research in the Software Solutions Division of the Software Engineering Institute, a federally funded research and development center based at Carnegie Mellon University. He is editor in chief of IEEE Software. Contact him at email@example.com.