Thursday, July 15, 2004

Why are CS Conferences so Important?

In nearly every scientific discipline conferences play a minor role. Most conferences have a few plenary speakers mixed with massive parallel sessions where nearly everyone who wants to present can present. The vetting of papers occurs in journals and the quality of one's research is measured much by which journal the work appears.

Computer science conferences are much more selective and the quality of one's work is measured by which conference the work appears. Journals play a far lesser role and many important papers never appear in a journal at all. Why is computer science different?

The answer is technological, namely airplanes. Before air travel conferences were much more difficult to attend and drew from a much more regional audience. Those who made the great effort and time to attend a conference were allowed to present. But presenting your paper at such a conference would not reach the majority of your colleagues. Journals were the most efficient way to broadly publicize your research and took on the more important role and have kept that role for historical reasons.

Computer science started as a field during the jet age. Many more people from a wider geographical base could attend a conference. One could now widely disseminate their research through conferences well before a paper appeared in a journal. Journals still played an important role for refereeing, editing and archiving but never held the importance in computer science as conferences do.

Since then we've seen another technological revolution and the internet easily trumps conferences for quickly distributing your results. Perhaps some new scientific field starting today would have a different internet-based system for judging research. But conferences will remain the primary focus for computer science as journals do for the older scientific disciplines.


  1. Nice post. this is a novel take on the preeminence of conferences in CS. regarding new models, one might say that the archive *is* the new model for dissemination, going even beyond conferences to much more immediate dissemination. Physics has adopted this in a much bigger way than CS has, and this even shows up in fields on the boundary like quantum computing.

  2. Distinct from the importance of conferences in
    disseminating new results is the perception of
    conference papers as a measure of quality.
    I am not sure that both of these are explainable
    by ease of travel. For example, physicists use
    the eprint archive to disseminate their information
    but they don't use that as a stamp of quality.

    One disadvantage I see in our conference system
    is that people write multiple papers that are essentially based on a similar idea. This is fine
    as far as result dissemination goes but our community also "counts" the number of conference papers as
    ones productivity or worth. I believe this causes a number of minor and incremental results being published as distinct papers. The cost to the community is the time taken up to review these papers
    and obfuscation of the key ideas. Another disadvantage is the emphasis on "novelty" of results. If one
    has a simplified proof of an earlier result, it is harder to get into a premier conference since the result is not "new". The paper does not get visibility if it is only published in a journal and in some sense the community is not benefiting from the simplification.


  3. In any conference, it is clear that some papers are better than others and, generally speaking, those are the ones that eventually appear in high-quality journals. This is not to minimize the importance of CS conferences, but merely to point out that journals still play an important role.

    I think one of the problems in CS (and I think this has been mentioned earlier here) is that many important results never appear in journals (or appear much later than the conference version) meaning that important results are relegated (essentially) to a belief that someone, somwehere has at one point verified a proof.