Sunday, July 31, 2016

Point-Counterpoint on the length of articles in IEEE Software

By: Diomidis Spinellis (@coolsweng), Christof Ebert (@christofebert)

Point — Diomidis Spinellis

In order to increase the number of articles and theme issues we publish, we will look at limiting the published article length to 3000 words.  This will allow us to publish more articles and two themes in one issue. It should also reduce the length of our queue and therefore the time it takes for us to publish articles. We are huge believers in using reader input and data to drive our decisions. Therefore, we’re presenting here a point-counterpoint regarding this decision and eagerly wait for your comments. Furthermore, as an experiment, our Theme Issue Associate Editor, Henry Muccini, will adjust the Call for Papers for two theme issues to include this limit, and we will see how this will affect submissions, acceptance rates, and, article downloads.

The 3000-word limit  may appear to be to offer too limited space in order to fit all we're asking for.  The inspiration behind the idea comes from journals we admire. Consider the reports in Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the world. These  are limited to about 2500 words including references, notes, and captions or about three printed pages.  Materials and Methods are typically included in online supplementary materials, which also often include information needed to support the paper's conclusions. (See <> for more details).  I have asked Computer Society staff whether we could also provide ancillary material online and I found this is indeed possible. We call these supplements Web Extras and we frequently do include them. The staff do need to review them and if needed then edit them. As an example here is an abstract and a pointer to online material from an article appearing in our July/August 2015 issue titled “Team Performance in Software Development: Research Results versus Agile Principles”.

“Abstract: This article reviews scientific studies of factors influencing co-located development teams’ performance and proposes five factors that strongly affect performance. In the process, it compares these propositions with the Agile Manifesto’s development principles. The Web extra at details the sources and research methods the authors employed.”

Counterpoint — Christof Ebert

Indeed, all that can be said, can be said in brevity. Yet it is challenging for the ambition of our articles and expectations of readers. "Science" is a bit special, but a good ambition as a role model. It covers a wide variety of fields, that it can only survive as an abstracts journal. Not yet our readers' perception of "Software". On the other hand magazines such as HBR, McKinsey and BCG have articles which are rather long - and still read.
We as readers - and leading practitioners - look for material which is down to earth and thus goes beyond hype and marketing, such as foundations, context, background, industry case studies, etc. Providing all that in 3000 words is not easy. Your example is an empirical study, which certainly has to point to more backup data. But does this hold for all type of content in IEEE Software? Stimulating further clicking for more information is appealing, but rarely we actually do it for time constraints. Many of my industry colleagues these days read articles as PDF "on the fly" in a true sense, not clicking further information.
Your suggested pilot is better than fiddling around with assumptions. Following our expectations to authors, we should avoid judging without data.So the pilot needs to measure:
- if and how people access and read these subsequent materials, compared to the current setting
- how much of the additional materials are accessed and with what click-through rates
- how they cite these new article format,
- how reader and subscriber numbers evolve, etc
If the pilot provides solid measurements, we can derive conclusions not only on preferred length but also how additional materials are actually used.

Diomidis Responds

I agree that positioning ourselves in a way that best serves our readers is important.  Do professionals really need to read at detailed methods and statistical analysis?  These are mainly required to help reviewers and researchers evaluate the validity of the findings.  As Christof correctly points out, the pilot will help us see whether publishing shorter articles is a good move, and the excellent metrics he suggests are what we will need to look at. Let’s keep in mind that we may also receive backlash from authors.  I happen to believe that shorter articles are more crisp and easier to read, but I understand that others may feel differently.

Christof Responds

Indeed not all readers need every detail inline. IEEE Software is extremely successful in its current format with balancing string content with good editing. Every now and then it is necessary to test new schemes. Those who don’t change will disappear. Having said that, we should definitely go with the pilot, and collect these pilot  measurements over 6-12 months. With some evaluation, we can take decisions - beyond only looking to size. This will not be a short-term exercise.

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