Thursday, February 03, 2011

On the future of conferences

There's a superb article out today in the CACM by Jonathan Grudin (non-paywall version here, thanks to Alexandre Passos) on the future (and past) of our CS conference-driven model. I'm biased in favor because it takes a generally negative view of the current model, but that's not why I like it.

I like it because he systematically tracks back to the origins of the conference culture, discusses why it's so prevalent, and avoids the glib "let's do everything in journals" argument that even I've been guilty of in the past.

Some of the tl;dr points (but do read the whole thing):
  • Technology and a Professional Organization Drove the Shift to Conference Publication: not speed of development of the field, as is commonly stated. It was also a more American-centered phenomenon.
  • Formal archiving of conference proceedings made creating journal versions more difficult (because of the 30% rule and so on)
  • "When conferences became archival, it was natural to focus on quality and selectivity." so the focus of conferences became more gatekeeping and less community.
  • This in turn has an impact on community: when your papers are rejected, you don't go to the conference. For more on the impact of rejection, see Claire Mathieu's post.
  • A further consequence is that computer scientists do not develop the skills needed to navigate large, community-building conferences.This is so true ! As someone who frequents SODA, SoCG and occasionally FOCS/STOC, I often find myself gasping for breath at VLDB (600+ participants) or KDD (800+). It's overwhelming to keep track of everything. And it makes it harder for me to attend such conferences regularly, even though it's important for me to go. 
His analysis of where we should be heading is also sound. Much like the Blue-ray-HD-DVD wars of a few years ago, the whole journal vs conference argument seems like an argument between two dinosaurs as the meteor arrives. We have many different ways of disseminating, commenting on, and reviewing works of research now, and it's time to think beyond the current models. Some of his ideas:
  • Accept many more papers at conferences, but designate some to be the 'best in show'
  • Center attention on the work, rather than the conference, by keeping wikipedia-like entries for pieces of work as they evolve. This is similar to Dan Wallach's idea.
p.s for those of you who want to complain about ACM's closed policy on the CACM, and how you'll never read an article in the CACM because of the paywall, consider your opinion expressed.

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