Open call for contributions to the M&C Synthesis Lecture series on Visualization, which I co-edit with David Ebert.

Why You Should Write a Morgan & Claypool Synthesis Lecture on Visualization

By Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park

Have you heard of Morgan & Claypool? Of course you have! You might have spotted their booths at one of the ACM or IEEE conferences in your field. Hopefully you’ve seen their books, and maybe read one or even a few (after all, there’s over 900 of them to choose from!).

If you haven’t heard of them, that’s mainly my fault. Mine and David Ebert’s, that is, as we are the series co-editors of the Morgan & Claypool (henceforth M&C) Synthesis Lectures on Visualization, and we haven’t really been as successful in making this book series known and relevant in the visualization field as we should have. Of course, the series is relatively new, with the first lecture in the series dating back to 2010, and the visualization field is not that big on books, so we’re still trying to make our impression.

Anyway, that is hopefully all going to change with this blog post, as my purpose here is twofold: (1) to tell you about the lecture series itself, and (2) to invite you become an author (or co-author or editor) of a synthesis lecture of your own. Please read on to learn more.

What is a “Lecture” Anyway?

Going by M&C’s own definition of a “lecture”, these are scholarly electronic books (eBooks) providing an overview of an important research or development topic that is authored by an expert contributor to the field. M&C has lecture series on a wide range of topics, roughly divided into two main areas: the life sciences (Colloquium Digital Library of Life Sciences), and engineering and computer science (Synthesis Digital Library of Engineering and Computer Science). Obviously, visualization lectures belong to the latter area.

For our visualization series, our synthesis lectures are the size of a small book—typically 50 to 150 pages in length—and focus on current research topics within a particular theme in any of the visual analytics, information visualization, and scientific visualization research disciplines. A rule of thumb is that we accept any research topic that the annual IEEE VIS conferences accept. As the name suggests, the focus is on state-of-the-art syntheses, surveys, and reviews as opposed to original research.

In my view, our synthesis lectures are something halfway between research papers in a conference or a journal, and a full-fledged, glossy book from a more traditional publisher (such as Tamara Munzner’s visualization series from AK Peters). It is my understanding that M&C pioneered this concept of these concise and scholarly “lectures” that are close to research, and that many other academic publishers are now emulating them. For example, Springer recently announced their own version in Springer Briefs, and I’m sure other publishers are scrambling to catch up. Our series is the only one for the visualization field, to my knowledge.

Anyway, I will write a little more about the possible types of content for a synthesis lecture later on in this post. First I want to spend all my energy convincing you to contribute!

Why You Should Contribute

Why is writing a synthesis lecture of benefit to you, the regular visualization practitioner or researcher? Allow me to list the ways:

  • Books convey more maturity than research papers. Getting your work published in book form can bring an additional level of credibility, maturity, and stature over journal and conference publications, which can be important when trying to establish a new research topic. Have you been teaching new material on a specific visualization topic and wished you had a more “permanent” format for it than just your slides and notes? ¬†Publish them as a synthesis lecture to make them more credible and accessible to your students! What if you have a big body of work in an area, but no single summary paper that can act as a gateway for it all? Make that summary a synthesis lecture!
  • You likely have the material lying around anyway. The format and content of our series provides an outlet for publishing work that is otherwise a poor fit for current journals and conferences. For example, a synthesis lecture can be based on an existing literature review chapter in a thesis or dissertation, or material from a course or tutorial. This can save the author a significant amount of time. Instead of agonizing over all the time that went into these “unpublishable” writings, you can turn them into a synthesis lecture with just a little bit of work!
  • All of the benefits of book writing, few of the negatives. M&C provides all of the benefits of publishing a book—including copyediting, permissions, and widespread distribution—without having to go to the lengths of writing a full book in the conventional way. Plus you’ll get physical author copies to proudly display on your own bookshelf, and when you go to VIS or CHI next time, you can bask in the glory of seeing your book in the M&C booth for all to see!
  • You’ll get paid! No joke; unlike most academic writing, book publishers actually pay you royalties. While these royalties are never going to be a major source of income, these are regular payments that do add up over time. (Note that for M&C, you will not be getting an advance.)

Next Step: The Book Proposal

By now I hope I have convinced you to actually take the step to write for us! If so, your first step is most likely going to be to email David and I and tell us all about it. At this stage, we will also ask you for a book proposal. Unlike for a journal or a conference, you will not have to have finished the book before you talk to us! In fact, unless you actually did finish it for some other reason (literature survey in a Ph.D. dissertation, for example), it is probably better you approach us before you begin writing, as this gives us maximum freedom in offering feedback and guidance on your topic.

Also unlike traditional journals and conferences, David and I, as series editors, are solely responsible for deciding whether or not to go ahead with a synthesis lecture. While we do employ peer review for improving a finished manuscript to become as good as it can be, we will likely make the first decision just between the two of us. In other words, the content of your book proposal can be vital in getting your synthesis lecture approved and a contract signed. While we have not yet had an issue of being swamped with submissions, we will not just accept any proposal. We are always looking for interesting, relevant, and timely proposals that fill a gap in our series and are written by authors that we think can deliver.

While there is no specific format for a book proposal, here are the main components it should contain:

  • Proposed title. Consider using a title that is reasonable for a scientific book (i.e. not necessarily as long as a typical research paper). What would look good on a bookshelf? At the same time, be vary of extremely general titles such as “Visual Analytics”, or even “Fundamentals of Visual Analytics”. Unless you really believe your book is the one that will end all books on this topic, consider qualifying your title a little (e.g. “A Cognitive Approach to Visual Analytics”).
  • Author team. List all of the authors in the desired order. Include full names, affiliations, and email addresses. If you have a large number of contributors, consider identifying the editors who will be responsible for coordinating the work separately from the authors. (This has bearing on the royalties as well.) If it is helpful, include a brief bio for each author in the document as well.
  • Abstract. Explain the pitch of your book in a brief and understandable manner that a general visualization expert can understand. Specific technical terms, abbreviations, and concepts should probably be explained sufficiently. Be sure that there is an overarching, synthesis theme to the book; it shouldn’t just be a bunch of papers stapled together!
  • Table of contents. If possible, provide at least a rough outline of the chapters of the book, and possibly some of the subheadings. The more detailed you can be here, the easier it will be for us to assess the direction of your book.
  • Tentative timeline. A rough schedule of your major deadlines would be helpful, including in particular when you intend to submit the first version of the full manuscript. This will help us plan reviewers well in advance for this date.
  • Potential reviewers. If you have any ideas or preferences for reviewers, please feel free to list them in your proposal. As the intention with our review is to prepare a high-quality manuscript, and not to accept or reject work, we generally conduct open peer review, with both the reviewers and the authors knowing each other’s identities.

In the past, many of our authors have submitted their proposal as a Google Doc, as this makes it easy for both your co-authors to work together on the document, as well as us to give feedback directly in the text.

Types of Contributions

Hopefully, your mind is now racing with possibilities on how you could contribute to our lecture series. To structure your thinking, let me list a few ways that our past authors have made their contributions to the series and give some concrete examples:

  • Ph.D. dissertation. If you just graduated (or even if it was a while ago), your dissertation is likely an excellent source of material for a synthesis lecture. Most dissertations include a hefty literature review in the area (which you happen to be an expert in), but this literature review is often difficult to publish on its own. In addition, even if you already published the research papers you included in the dissertation (or if you didn’t), you can still include them in the synthesis lecture since the resulting product is significantly different from the original publications on their own. My only advice here is that while your Ph.D. dissertation was rightly focused on your own work, you should make an effort to be a little more inclusive in the synthesis lecture version of the dissertation: are there other efforts in this field that you should include or at least discuss? Also, if the dissertation was published a few years ago, we would expect you to update it to the current state of the art.
    • Example: Alex Endert’s synthesis lecture on Semantic Interaction was developed primarily from his Ph.D. dissertation, but Alex spent a significant time updating the content to the 2016 state of the art, and included additional work he had done since the original thesis.
  • Habilitation. For places with habilitation (basically, a qualification for independent university teaching and scholarship), your habilitation thesis, just like the dissertation, is likely another great starting point for a synthesis lecture in our series. Basically, the same caveats as for the Ph.D. dissertation apply: be inclusive, include even your published research papers, and update any old stuff to the current state.
    • Example: Both Christian Tominski’s lecture on Interaction for Visualization as well as Christophe Hurter’s lecture on Image-Based Visualization came about from their successful habilitations. In both cases, the step from habilitation thesis to synthesis lecture was very simple!
  • Course or tutorial. Maybe you have been teaching a specific new topic at your university, or maybe you have developed a course or tutorial that you have taught at conferences in the past. If so, you likely have a lot of the basic material, data, and papers already collected, and turning this into a synthesis lecture will be a simple matter. Even better, by publishing a lecture on this material, you will now have a single and accessible book that you can distribute to your students!
  • Long-standing expertise. When David and I go out to solicit books from specific authors, we generally approach people that we know have a long-standing interest and expertise in a specific area. If this is a fair description of you for one such area, don’t wait for us to get in touch, please consider using that expertise to write the definitive overview of the area! Of course, as with any survey, merely summarizing a laundry list of existing research papers is not sufficient; we expect that a synthesis lecture adds some higher-level structure and organization to the topic that is being discussed.
    • Example. We approached Jean Scholtz for a book on evaluation, given her long expertise and reputation in this topic. With all of her material already assembled, she was able to write a synthesis lecture on User-Centered Evaluation of Visual Analytics in a very short amount of time.
  • Workshop. Recently, we have been experimenting with the possibility of using the synthesis lectures as a vehicle for workshop proceedings and outcomes. This is a little more challenging because our lectures are generally short (50 to 150 pages) and only include a small set of authors. To get around this, there are basically two different approaches to take: (1) identify one or several editors who will be listed as the main contributors for the work (additional contributors are still considered authors); or (2) split the work into several themes, each which goes into separate books. For the latter case, I would propose that workshop organizers spend 30-45 minutes at the end of their workshop identifying the main themes discovered during the workshop and let attendees self-select which theme to contribute to, with the goal of each theme resulting in a self-contained short book of suitable length (i.e. 50 to 150 pages). A typical workshop often yields three to five such themes. A third model for a workshop is merely to have the organizers synthesize the outcomes from the workshop into a workshop report.
    • Example: I actually don’t have an example for a synthesis lecture that was conceived this way. If you are running a workshop, get in touch with me and you could be the first!

What to Expect

Your mind is set, the wind is at your back, your topic is locked in, and your book proposal is polished and ready. What happens next?

Once you email the proposal to David and I, we will take a look at it and offer you some feedback. Provided we like what we see, given some modifications and guidance, we will give you the go-ahead to proceed. This will trigger our publisher at M&C to get in touch with you with a contract that you will have to sign between the authors or editors. This contract will stipulate the share for each co-author. In the end, this works out to your royalty share, so please pay attention to it!

Anyway, with all of the administrative things out of the way, all that is left is to write. Depending on what you decide with David and I, you can choose to submit the full manuscript at the end, or to submit chapters as they are completed. Overall, as editor, my main desire is that my authors continue communicating with me throughout the process. I am fine with deadlines slipping and manuscripts being late, but if that happens, please keep us informed. It will be easier to plan if all parties are in the loop. Unanswered emails are frustrating.

As you write, you will also end up using images and photographs from your own as well as other people’s publications. This is generally not a problem, as M&C will work to get the correct permissions for these images. However, it is generally easier if you mark the source of the images as well as the publisher (IEEE, ACM, etc). The permissions people at M&C are great and should be able to track down and get the required permissions with a minimum of trouble, but it helps to be helpful.

Once your whole manuscript (or just chapters) are finished, David and I will likely take a quick look and then get the document sent out to reviewers. We may also provide in-depth feedback and guidance depending on our own expertise on this topic.

When the reviews come back, we generally just send them along to you so that you can address the comments. Generally, we will just employ a single round of reviewing, unless the first round uncovers significant quality concerns. There is also a remote possibility that after the first review, we find that the manuscript is just not up to the level that we expect, and that continued revisions are unlikely to yield a publishable form. If that is the case, we reserve the right to decline publishing the book. While this has yet to happen as long as I have been series editor, you should realize that this is a possible outcome. Submit your best work!