Thursday, June 25, 2015

Changing STOC

At the recently completed STOC and the previous FOCS, much of the discussion revolved around reforming the conferences. You read the discussion and comments on Windows on Theory and I've also been cc'd on several very long email threads.

STOC, as the flagship conference of ACM SIGACT, should be the focal point of the community, the place where researchers circle their calendars and make sure they attend the event. You see that at SOSP for the systems community or SIGCOMM for networking. But not STOC, smaller than it was thirty years ago when the theory community had a fraction of the people we have today.

Instead STOC has become a conference for its authors, to give researchers a prestigious line in their CVs. While authors get to present their papers, STOC is no longer a primary place for dissemination, better served by arXiv and ECCC.

The problem is conference overload. We have two top theory conferences a year, STOC and FOCS, not to mention SODA, Computational Complexity and so many others. Conferences are expensive in both time and money and we can't afford to attend too many. People often choose more specialized conferences and workshops where they can focus on talking to people in their specialized research areas.

SOSP on the other hand meets only once every two years, accepts only thirty papers and gets 600 attendees.

The only true solution would merge and/or eliminate conferences. We don't need two major theory conferences a year. But that's not politically feasible.

So the talk is of a Theory Festival centered around STOC in 2017, to make an event that all theorists would want to attend. What that theory festival should or should not do is the topic of all the discussion. I'm not going to talk about the various proposals but I encourage strong experimentation to get us out of this bad equilibrium. Otherwise we end up with status quo and status quo does not bring our community together.


  1. Aleksander Madry5:05 PM, June 25, 2015

    "We don't need two major theory conferences a year. But that's not politically feasible."

    Could you elaborate on that?

    Why can't we, for example, keep the FOCS/STOC submission deadlines (and PCs) separate, but have only one meeting a year with presentations of papers from both conferences? (And while we are at it, collocate RANDOM/APPROX and CCC with this too.)

    Yes, this would require some important choices (and sacrifices) to make it logistically feasible. But one could argue that we are already forced to make such choices and sacrifices implicitly each year, when deciding whether to attend FOCS and/or STOC (or neither).

    So, beyond the above, as well as the natural inertia of the system, is there something else that might make such a soft merge a contentious issue? It is not like we have FOCS-centered and STOC-centered fractions in our community, after all.

    1. Sounds like a fine idea, but something similar didn't get much support at last year's FOCS conference.

    2. Aleksander Madry10:23 AM, June 28, 2015

      But is it at least known what people don't like about it? Somehow I have a feeling that the lack of support was more of a matter of inertia.