The Semantic Puzzle

Pascal Hitzler

The Semantic Web journal – half a year later

SWJ-logo The journal “Semantic Web – Interoperability, Usability, Applicability” – in short: the Semantic Web journalThe journal Semantic Web – Interoperability, Usability, Applicability (ISSN: 1570-0844) brings together researchers from various fields which share the vision and need for more effective and meaningful ways to share information across agents and services on the future internet and elsewhere. ... – was launched 7 months ago, sporting a transparent open review process. Pascal Hitzler is one of the Editors-in-Chief (the other one is Krzysztof Janowicz). He answers some questions on the motivation, setup, and future plans of the journal. (Pascal also wrote the questions and this intro, so it’s really a fake interview. But it seemed an appropriate literary form …)

Question: Why did you launch yet another journal on Semantic Web?

Hitzler: Because the community is growing and the need for publication outlets grows with it. I heard the objection that there weren’t enough quality papers for all the journals, but I don’t think so. It’s just that most of the quality papers still end up in journals which are not dedicated to the Semantic Web as such.

Personally, my desire to start a new journal began when I wanted to do a special issue on Semantic Web reasoning in some other, established, journal, and the Editors-in-Chief basically replied with a lapidary “Is there anything to report?” I didn’t push the case back then (though I probably should have). But this and similar experiences made me think about scientific publishing from a different angle, a normative one: What should scientific publishing in our field look like? The journal gives me a possibility to realize some of my answers – or at least to go a few steps into the right direction. So when the opportunity arose to set up this journal with a well-known publishing house (IOS Press) and with a co-Editor-in-Chief (Krzysztof Janowicz, a strong proponent of open and transparent reviewing) who I knew would also put a maximum of energy into the venture, it was simply too good an opportunity to let it pass. However I also realize that the reality of scientific publishing can change only slowly, and that it needs time and gradual improvements. We can’t do it all at once.

Question: Your journal uses an open review process. What is that and why?

Hitzler: Open reviewing, in the sense we use it for the Semantic Web journal, is all about transparency. Submitted papers are made publicly available. Solicited reviews are made publicly available. Anybody else can additionally contribute a public review. Reviewers are publicly known by name. Discussions between reviewers and authors can (and should) happen in public. Reviewers and editors are acknowledged by name in the published versions of the papers.

The obvious reason for setting up an open review process is to improve the quality of the decision-making process. We have to realize that some persisting habits about reviewing have their origin in times when scientific publishing was made for a small expert audience, and had to be conducted by sending manuscripts and letters by conventional mail. Today, however, reviewing and publishing is inflationary, which substantially reduces the quality of the typical paper – and of the typical review. While we cannot simply reverse this trend, we can take advantage of the World Wide Web to counteract these developments and improve quality by bringing the review process out into the public space. Reviewers will put more effort into providing constructive reviews if they publicly sign their reviews. Open and public discussions on controversial submissions minimize errors in the decision making.

Personally, I also hope that the ensuing discussions will help to bring back a scientific tradition which has long been on the decline in our field: controversial but constructive discussion. Regretfully, these days we somehow tend to mainly present incremental results, bash opposing opinions, and sugarcoat our own …

Question: Past attempts to set up open reviewing for journals have failed …

Hitzler: Yes, I remember seeing some of these early attempts many years ago when I was a PhD student. Even back then I was doubtful if the sometimes rather radical setups had a chance. In the meantime, there is growing experience in other fields that open reviews can work out if set up carefully. In our case, we mix old-style with open, by still soliciting reviews, and by giving solicited reviewers the option to stay anonymous, if they see a need for this protection. We Editors-in-Chief also “steer” the journal in the sense that we have rather clear strategic targets, e.g. in terms of scope and quality, which we’re trying to meet. In short: rather than experimenting with radical changes, we mildly introduce a new but essential component – open reviewing – in a traditional scientific publishing process. That way, it will work.

Question: But isn’t anonymous reviewing necessary to protect the reviewers and in order to get objectively critical reviews?

Hitzler: Sometimes. That’s why it’s good that solicited reviewers can opt to stay anonymous. Open reviewing – like any form of assessment in science – isn’t perfect, and has its drawbacks. However, the current reality in Computer Science is that reviewing processes are often extremely poor and decision processes are not very transparent. For conferences, reviewer discussions and rebuttal phases were introduced some time ago to improve the decision making. Open reviews simply go a step further.

Question: Aren’t potential authors afraid of getting a public bashing in the review process?

Hitzler: Reviewers typically won’t bash if they sign with their name. And in fact, we monitor the reviews in order to make sure that they adhere to a certain minimal scientific standard. At the same time, it’s probably just as well if our public process makes people more reluctant to submit papers which are not yet mature enough for publication. We wouldn’t want to publish them anyway. And in order to protect authors of rejected submissions, we actually remove the corresponding papers and reviews from the website after some time.

While I understand that some people may be more reluctant to put their work out in the open before it’s been accepted through a review process, we have to be aware that many quality journal publications, like the ones we’re striving for, are extended versions of high-quality conference publications: so they have indeed already been through a review process. Furthermore, submitting to our journal gives added visibility for the work, since it’s up for public review on our website.

Question: Your journal also publishes papers which are not standard research papers. Aren’t you compromising scientific rigor by doing this?

Hitzler: Times are changing. The prime purpose of a scientific journal is to disseminate results to other researchers, and to do so through a quality filter. Traditionally, this dissemination was restricted to focused research contributions, targeted at other researchers working in the same narrow area as the author(s). Semantic Web as a field, however, is extremely diverse and comprises researchers and practitioners from many other communities. Consequently, high-quality tools, systems, ontologies, introductory surveys and application reports are very much needed for the dissemination of advances in our field to all interested parties. As for research papers, the role of the journal for these other types of papers is primarily quality assurance. And consequently, we have clearly formulated the evaluation criteria for different types of papers. A report on a high impact tool, for example, is thus not a direct research contribution in the traditional sense. But if the tool enables further developments in the field, then it is worth reporting, and it indirectly makes a contribution to scientific progress.

Question: Why are you still publishing through a commercial publishing house?

Hitzler: Because it helps. A lot. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of work which needs to be put into running a journal, and going with a commercial publisher rids the Editors-in-Chief and the Editorial Board from a lot of tasks which are not directly related with quality assurance. Open review does not mean that this kind of professional support is no longer needed. And we are glad that we have found a publishing house which is very accommodating to our ideas.

Question: What are plans for the immediate future?

Hitzler: We currently have more than 30 papers up for review, most of them responses to two recent calls, one on tools and systems papers, and one on applications of OWL – and some of the submissions seem rather prominent. We also have several special issues lined up, most of them have not been announced yet. The first issue will appear towards the end of the year and contain vision statements by the EB members – we do not normally publish vision statements, but this seemed an appropriate way to introduce the journal. Considering that the journal has been launched only 7 months ago, this means that we are already very well under way in pursuing our goal of establishing a high-quality scientific outlet in the field.

[author: Pascal Hitzler]