Monday, September 9, 2013

Growing Pains for Inroads and its Fans

Transitions can be painful even when you realize that the eventual outcome will be a good thing. We tend to get comfortable with how things are and we understand how to operate in that world. Sometimes change catches you by surprise and it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under your feet. There are several unhelpful ways we sometimes react to changes that push us out of our comfort zone, including ignoring the situation and operating as if nothing has changed, becoming defensive, and invoking passive aggressive behaviors.

What Makes A Magazine a Magazine? (only 1 is by ACM)

A few years ago Inroads became ACM Inroads Magazine, and as both a columnist and Associate Editor, I have had the opportunity to watch the growing pains inflicted upon all involved. It is a wonderful thing to be a magazine. ACM has just a few magazines, and joining the ranks of those high quality publications brings many benefits. These include greater exposure for computing education, more diverse articles, more diverse readers, more diverse authors, and more interesting articles.

That last item is really where the rub is. By saying "more interesting" I am not saying that articles were not interesting in the past. (Trying to fend off any rotten tomatoes before they are launched). What I want to say is that a magazine has a rather unique kind of mission. What makes a magazine?

Ask yourself: What do the likes of Wired and People have in common? Seriously. Pretty darned extreme differences (and quality) but between them, and along the whole spectrum, there are some commonalities. How about (feel free to suggest non-snarky additions): articles that grab your attention and suck you in - I mean really suck you in, if well written and if you have even the remotest interest in the subject matter. Articles that don't require in depth subject matter expertise just to get beyond the abstract. What a minute: what abstract? Toss out the abstract. And for heavens sake toss out almost all citations. Perhaps include a few bibliographic references for the interested reader at the end. Toss in visually appealing pages - color! Photos? Diagrams? Toss in engaging relevant pictures that may or may not have data involved....

Which brings me to a bottom line: A magazine is not a research journal. Or a conference publication. Nor should it be approached as one.

That fact can be hard to adjust to for authors and reviewers and readers who are used to publications requiring the setting of a theoretical base, providing a literature review, citing prior and related work, defending every opinion (wait, there aren't supposed to be "opinions" except perhaps in the Discussion section - but even then they had better be thoroughly grounded one way or another), presenting data data and more data, drilling the point home and leaving the reader convinced (if the article is well presented) that no other reasonable conclusion is possible [here I smile, because there is always room for disagreement, even if only on a matter as significant as whether Power was reported]

It isn't that we don't know what a magazine is on an instinctive level. It is just that if we aren't used to reading and writing and reviewing for professional magazines, but for research and conference journals, it can be difficult to adjust. This is what I have been seeing in some cases. It doesn't matter how many times the Editor in Chief points out that Inroads is a magazine: heads nod, but when it comes time to read, write and review...some revert to a way of thinking based on the academic model of evaluating publications. Depending upon the personality involved, this can mean a wide variety of reactions to what is clearly not, nor intended to even come close to, a research article. That is what I have been observing.

It's hard to adjust to change. ACM Inroads Magazine (as I am supposed to refer to it when being official) is breaking new ground, reaching out to the wider computing community (Computer Science, Management Information Systems, Information Technology, Informatics, and others), as well as industry readers and leaders who share an interest in education. ACM Inroads Magazine is moving towards articles that grab your attention, don't require a PhD with a specialization in security to be engaged by an article on security, aren't littered with citations, and trade nailing down every statement of opinion or philosophical viewpoint for thoughtful and sometimes intentionally open ended provocative assertions.

No, ACM Inroads Magazine is not turning into People Magazine. Although it occurs to me I could have a great deal of fun writing a tongue in cheek column about what that might look like. We aren't turning into Wired Magazine either. We aren't sacrificing quality; we are applying standards for top rated magazine quality (most decidedly not People magazine). The magazine format provides us a platform to become incredibly useful to a broad audience interested in computing education. That is a good thing, isn't it?

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