Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Professor for one year (week 46): Writing research across borders

After teaching is over, I packed my suitcase and took the TGV to Paris.  I attended the Third Writing Research Across Borders (WRAB) conference which took place at the University of Paris-Ouest Nanterre la DefĂ©nse.

WRAB takes place every third year, 2011 it was at the Georg Mason University in Washington, D.C., and 2008 at was hosted by the University of California Santa Barbara.  It is the biggest and most international conference on writing research I'm aware of.  The conferences organized by EARLI's SIG Writing (which take place every other year) are also international (i.e., not only European), but much smaller.

The number of participants, number of submitted and accepted proposals, and the number of concurrent sessions is constantly growing.  They actually had 26 parallel sessions!  It was almost impossible to find out which of the talks/presentations would be the most suitable one depending on your own interests.  There was a bit of Twitter traffic going on, so I could see that related topics would be discussed at various sessions all taking place at the same time.  The program was so dense and there were so many people, I draw the comparison to LREC (the International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation), taking place every other year.  LREC is growing still and you can be sure to meet almost everybody from the NLP community there.  If LREC is the conference to be for NLP, then WRAB is the conference to be for writing research.

And WRAB shares another not so nice feature with LREC: Although you know that everybody is there (or you even searched the program for the name of some colleagues), you cannot meet someone during a coffee break or over lunch unless you actively make an appointment.  I like small- or mid-sized conferences better.

As I had no time to submit papers to NLP conferences during this year, those writing research conferences (and also conferences/workshops on linguistics) will be the only conferences I actively attend in 2014 -- you only have to submit a very short abstract, not a full paper.  At WRAB, I presented ongoing work on a systematic analysis of complex writing errors.  I argued to go a step further than current error analysis in writing research, NLP, or (second) language acquisition -- we have to consider the process that caused an error when classifying writing errors.  This way, we could on the one hand distinguish competence errors and performance errors and we could on the other hand come up with actual proposals on how to automatically prevent or correct certain types of errors.  Fortunately, I found a possibility to actually publish this -- I will give the details once the publication is a available.

I could meet colleagues from Europe and The Americas, we exchanged ideas and made loose appointments for SIG Writing's Conference on Writing Research in August.  So yes, the conference was successful.  As I already new that I would start at IMS in Stuttgart in April, I could tell people about my new affiliation and I made some loose collaboration and cooperation agreements.  I hope I can actually work on that in Stuttgart.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Professor for one year (week 45): Last week of teaching

Finally it's mid February and the last week of teaching is over.  This semester (Winter term 2013/2014), I taught four courses: on Computational Morphology aka XFST, on Computational Semantics aka Prolog, on Natural Language Processing, and on logging writing processes and exploring those data.

Except for the NLP course, I had to prepare everything from scratch.  There was material I could use and it definitely helped to "borrow" ideas and exercises for the two programming courses, but I spent all time with preparing slides (for all courses) and data (especially for the writing processes course) or assessing student solutions.

I also realized that I have to work on my elocution: When I teach two classes back-to-back, my voice is almost gone at the end of the day although I regularly sip some water.  Of course, one solution would be not to talk that much myself, but to let students contribute more.  However, staying focused for 90 minutes and trying to be louder than the 30 computers plus keyboarding noise and to keep students awake is stress to my voice.

As for the exams, I did different things:
  • For the Prolog course, I had an exam similar to the Perl course last semester.  The grade is made up by points earned during the semester by submitting solutions for three exercises and then there is a final exam consisting of a more theoretical part to be answered on paper and a more practical part where students actually program.  I could assess the theoretical part while students worked on the programming tasks, nice multitasking.
  • For the XFST course, students earned some points by solving three assignments during the semester, too.  And then they will submit small projects including documentation within 4 weeks.
  • For the NLP course, students earned some points during the semester by submitting solutions for three assignments and then I had a classic written exam at the very last session.  Students had to answer one question per topic.  Looks like the handwriting of most students is more or less readable.
  • For the writing process course, students had to work on a project during the second half of the semester.  They defined a small research question to investigate in groups of two, recorded a writing session for each person, and then explored the logged data and wrote a small report.  I will report on this experimental didactic setting at the next Conference on Writing Research in August. 
I could time the assessments for the three NLP-related courses so I had to come up with an assignment every week and I had to grade an assignment every week.  I preferred a constant but moderate workload instead of giving assignments to all three courses in the same week.  In every course, students had to read research papers (classics and recent ones) in groups and present the content to their colleagues.  Students also had to relate the paper they presented to the material presented or discussed before and they had to comment on whether or not they agree with the authors based on their prior knowledge and being almost full-fledged and approved linguists themselves (they where all master students except for the XFST course).

So teaching is over, I wait for the project submissions of two courses and I have to assess the written exam for NLP and the Prolog programs.  I hope to submit all grades by the end of March to actually finish all teaching stuff when my appointment in Konstanz ends.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Professor for one year (week 44): Publication speed

When you read a paper about "current research" or "recent findings" of a project, are you sure this project is still ongoing or finished only recently (considering the publication date and the date of reading)?  Are you really reading about current research, about something that the authors are currently working on?

If the paper appears as part of proceedings of a computer science or computational linguistics conference, it is fair to draw this conclusion. A paper published in fall 2005 most probably describes research from late 2004 or early 2005. The proceedings appear at the date of the conference at the very latest. Of course authors have to submit their final papers a few weeks in advance -- publishing with Springer, as we do for the Workshop on Systems and Frameworks for Computational Morphology (SFCM), requires editors to submit everything to eight weeks before the conference date, so authors have to submit their final paper roughly three months before the conference (and thus before the presentation of their work). That's pretty fast for an actually printed publication. It could be even faster for electronic publication only, reducing the time span to maybe one month.

However, if you look into other disciplines, publication speed is much slower. The last project at the University of Basel was somewhat interdisciplinary, involving linguistics and computational linguistics. So we went to conferences/workshops in both fields and we also published in both fields. As there are rarely proceedings for linguistic conferences that actually appear at the date of the conference, we usually submitted a paper to a call after the conference. Mostly, those papers appeared in edited volumes as part of a book series.

Due to different publication speed, the very first article we wrote (corresponding to the very first talk we gave during the project -- there had been talks on the topic before the project started) appeared after the project was finished. So everything we said about how to tackle various challenges and what we would like to achieve was published only when we already had those results. Which in general isn't that big of an issue if we would have published all other papers in a similar way: articles on single aspects of the project or on the outcome would appear later.

However, some of the more technical or NLP-related aspects we published at NLP-related conferences.  So we now have the strange situation, that the somewhat "starting" paper presented at a conference in April 2011 is published much later (mid 2013) than papers on the infrastructure we developed and used (fall 2012). Someone trying to follow the project thus has a hard timer figuring out what to conclude from which publication.

Late publications are often due to slow processes during submission (extension of deadlines on request of other authors), during review, during revision and resubmission, during editing, and then during actual printing or putting it online.  Together with Robert Dale I wrote a handbook chapter which finally appeared now, in February 2014.  The whole book project started in early 2011 (probably even earlier as there probably had been negotiations with the publisher first).  We submitted our chapter on time, received two reviews and submitted a revised version (i.e., the final version!) in October 2012.  And now, one and a half years later, we finally got the printed book.  In the meantime I changed universities twice (from Basel to Konstanz to Stuttgart).  So I had to report a change in affiliation, author bio, e-mail and postal address twice.  If I wouldn't have reported those changes, the editors wouldn't have been able to reach me to ask me look at the galley proofs. (In the end, the publisher send the book to a totally strange address I never reported, anyway ...)

For most of the delays in various processes, explanations can be found.  Sometimes someone gets sick, but most of the time it is due to poor production processes.  Submitting articles in MS word format with graphics and tables as separate files forces the editor/copy editor to spend a lot of time actually producing appropriately running text including figures and tables.  Marking keywords manually on paper slows down indexing extremely.  And so it goes on and on.

Given the electronic tools we have today in document processing and document engineering, there is no real reason for slow publication speed.  Apart from the discussion on open access and how authors can make an impact by preferring open access publishers, authors can influence the speed of publication by choosing publishers or publishing methods with reasonable processing speed.