In this column a year ago, Bruce Hajek presented what he called "some vague thoughts about the future of the Information Theory Society (its members, volunteers and leadership)." Because the issues raised by Bruce are so important, I would like to revisit some of them here, adding my own thoughts and interpretations.
The emphasis in the Society is on the Transactions and the technical meetings, specifically our symposia and workshops. Certainly, this is as it should be, and most members would attest that the papers published in the Transactions and the presentations at our meetings achieve the Society objectives of advancing the theory and practice of electrical engineering. In this arena, there are operational details that are discussed regularly by the Board of Governors, including such questions as: Should the Transactions change to a monthly publication? Should the Symposium be held annually? Should the workshops be broad in their technical coverage or more focused? There are a variety of views on these topics, and I will not reiterate them here. However, these discussions are certain to continue, so if you would like more background or wish to express a viewpoint, please send me or any Board member e-mail (My e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The technical quality of the Transactions is well guarded by the Editor-in-Chief and the Associate Editors, and the quality of the technical programs at the workshops and symposia is overseen by the organizers, who are selected and approved by the Board of Governors. To maintain excellence in our technical contributions, we need to be vigilant, but I think that we are.
The technical breadth of our members is highlighted by the fact that fewer than 10% of IT Society members belong exclusively to the Information Theory Society. This breadth is in keeping with the Society's Constitution which states that the society's field of interest "...encompasses theoretical and certain applied aspects of coding, communications and communications networks, complexity and cryptography, detection and estimation, learning, Shannon Theory, and stochastic processes." It is critical to the Society's health that this breadth be encouraged in every aspect of our activities, and in particular, that fields other than Shannon Theory and Coding Theory receive their due attention.
The Society must serve the technical community and its members. We generally feel that we are serving the technical community with the Transactions and the meetings. However, it is interesting to note that Symposium attendance is around 600 in recent years, which constitutes only about 10% of our total membership, and some feel that many of our journal papers are "too theoretical." Additionally, recent years seem to show a significant downward trend in our membership and we are in the process of evaluating this data and what it means. One possibility is that we are not presenting to the technical community and to IT Society members that do not regularly attend our meetings, a clear view of the Society's contributions, opportunities, and directions.
In fact, some claim that several substantive technical contributions in coding, modulation, and compression are often associated with other IEEE entities such as the Communications Society and the Computer Society, even though the principal advances may have first appeared in our journal pages or were first presented at an IT Symposium. Of course, many of our members do belong to these societies. However, we may not be allowing those that do not attend our meetings regularly, or are not motivated to digest the analytical rigor of many of our papers, to obtain a clear view of the IT Society's role in these very real engineering advances. As noted by Bruce, two ways that we have addressed this point in the past are by special issues of the Transactions and by workshops on current topics of interest, and we must continue these practices. A third approach to making the significance of the Society's technical contributions evident to a wider audience is for our members to write expository articles on appropriate topics. These articles do not have to appear in our publications, and in fact, articles in other publications, when properly referenced and placed in context, might open up new audiences.
The two choices within the Society for expository articles are the Transactions and this Newsletter. If one is concerned about listing a publication on a resume, then a Newsletter article probably does not carry much weight; however, the types of overviews and perspectives most suitable for informing the membership of the Society's contributions likely imply authors who are not much concerned with listing another publication. And while such articles may be less interesting to write for some, it offers an opportunity to contribute historical perspectives and insights on a topic's development that can be stimulating and valuable, and I encourage the preparation of such articles and talks. In line with the idea of more general overview articles is the possibility of the Society publishing a Magazine. This possibility has been discussed rather thoroughly several times and I only mention it for those who might not be aware of these considerations.
Not too far away from thoughts about whether to add a new publication or to publish the Transactions more often is the decision, or set of decisions, as to how the Society might "Thrive in the Electronic Information Age" (Bruce's words). This needs serious thought now and into the future. Many of our members are very sophisticated when it comes to the Web and sharing information electronically, but as a Society, my feeling is we are lagging back, in preparation if not in actual use. We do have a Web page and a Web Page Editor, many of our manuscripts are submitted electronically, and e-mail is the communication mode of choice -- but how can we use the Web more effectively to serve the technical community and augment our current activities? Are we fully taking advantage of CD-ROM technology and compression methods in our meetings and publications? I hope that each of you will share your individual ideas and experiences so that we can be more progressive in this area.
To continue to provide the services that we have in the past and to consider and offer new services to our members and the technical community at large, we need to recruit new members, new volunteers, and new leaders. This is nontrivial. We are a completely volunteer society. This has its advantages, and it seems to fit our own internal view of the Society, but it has its disadvantages as well. Both the Communications Society and the Signal Processing Society have staff members who aid in many of the Technical Activities Board details, as well as work on organizing conferences, preparing publications, and authoring Web pages and electronic offerings. However, I am convinced that if we can provide, with volunteers, the services our members need, and indeed, that the Society needs to advance and remain vital, the quality of the service will be better because the volunteers are users themselves of the services. However, offering expanded services, and doing this well, requires capable individuals who can and will give up a portion of their valuable time. So, this is the usual appeal for members to get involved, but perhaps with a broader scope that offers more choices for the volunteer.
For me, and as noted by Tony Ephremides' in The Historian's Column in the June 1996 Newsletter, the technical fields encompassed by the Information Theory Society are alive and well -- even "hot." It is our responsibility to see that the Information Theory Society continues to be the leading proponent of these fields as they develop and evolve.