Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Michael finds the elephant the room:
I think STOC/FOCS has become progressively less algorithms-oriented over the years. My impression is that STOC/FOCS emphasizes "mathematical depth", "cleverness", and "theory purity" over, say, "usability" and "insight into a practical problem". I know there are a large number of people who think this, and I would therefore encourage people who don't see this or think it is true to simply consider the issue again. I do not wish to make a judgement call as to whether this is good or bad -- this is just what these conferences, I believe, have turned into.

SODA, not coincidentally, has become a refuge for more algorithmically oriented papers. (As have more specialized conferences.) In some ways, this is good -- these papers have a home! In some ways, it is bad, because I think it has exacerbated the division, which in part explains the extreme opinions the post has raised. (I too have had reviews essentially saying, "This is algorithmic, belongs in SODA." Perhaps the reviewer was just being kind and didn't want to negatively comment on the quality of my work. But my impression is that for many FOCS/STOC reviewers "algorithmic" has itself become a quality comment, in the sense that "algorithmic" papers that do not pass the "deep/clever/pure" test are pretty much dismissed out of hand.)

I have been on committees for FOCS/STOC conferences, and I feel that I have seen these biases in action. Strangely, I did not come away with any ideas on how to change things; once a culture develops, it seems very hard to change.
I'd like to point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with FOCS and STOC being exactly the way Michael describes them, as long as these biases are made clear. A conference is defined by its community, and by the papers it accepts. If I know that only "deep/clever/pure" papers should be sent to STOC/FOCS, it makes my life much easier, as long we are willing to relax the idea that only STOC/FOCS must represent the best that theory has to offer.

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