Soundness vs. Importance in Publishing (PeerJ Computer Science Journal Announced)

Today, PeerJ announced the creation of a new open access computer science journal. After a bit of back and forth a while ago I had accepted the invitation to be on the editorial board. (My main concern was that PeerJ is a for-profit organization but co-founder Pete Binfield convinced me that this will only be used to the benefit of the authors.) A key distinguishing criterion of PeerJ when compared with other open access publishers is an all-you-can-publish rate of US$ 99 forever.

My social media stream is full of comments, positive and negative. What seems to rile people mostly are the editorial criteria, summarized succinctly as

“Rigorous yet fair review. Judge the soundness of the science, not its importance.”

In a world of abundant web space, I think this is exactly the right focus. Computer science still suffers from poor quality and use of methods and not from lack of impact. The quality of a science is defined by the quality of its methods. Impact or societal importance, however, is in the eye of the beholder and more often than not what is considered “important” is just the dominant paradigm having its way.

Confirmatory research in computer science, a.k.a. (wrongly) empirical or quantitative research, has been improving but is still a long way from the quality of more established disciplines like physics or psychology. The state of empirical computer science is tenuous at best, in my observation. Even reviewers for high quality journals and conferences don’t necessarily know what they are doing, simply because the current researcher generation has been brought up on a notion of innovation rather than sound methods. That is, “importance” has been overemphasized to the detriment of quality.

Exploratory research in computer science, a.k.a. qualitative research, is in even worse shape. It is easy these days to find research papers claiming to have performed grounded theory or case study research, but for all that I can say, social scientists would run for the hills if asked to read this work. Here, we are really just at the beginning.

All of which is to say that I like a focus on soundness of research rather than a debatable notion of “importance”. Given that space is not the limiting factor, I don’t see anything wrong with people toiling in obscure areas of computer science. I’m game as long as their research is sound, I don’t have to know about it unless I want to, and I have a good search engine to help me find it then.

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