Thursday, September 06, 2018

Are Conferences Discriminatory?

Glencora Borradaile wrote a blog post in June about how conferences discriminate.
Let me spell it out. In order to really succeed in most areas of computer science, you need to publish conference papers and this, for the most part, means attendance at those conferences. But because of the institutional discrimination of border control laws and the individual discrimination that individuals face and the structural discrimination that others face, computer science discriminates based on nationality, gender identity, disability, and family status, just to name a few aspects of identity.
Suresh Venkatasubramanian follows up with a tweet storm (his words) echoing Glencora's points.
Ryan Williams had a twitter thread defending conferences.
Not much difference these day between blog posts, tweet storms and twitter threads and I recommend you read through them all.

Much as I think conferences should not serve as publication venues, they do and should play a major role in connecting people within the community. We should do our best to mitigate the real concerns of Glencora and Suresh, create an environment that everyone feels comfortable, have travel support and child care to make it easier and have meetings in different countries so those with visa issues can still attend at times. But we cannot eliminate the conference without eliminating the community. Personal interactions matter.


  1. I feel that this discussion discriminates based on whether you've got a twitter account or not...

  2. I'll be anonymous for this one. In CS, conferences serve two functions -- 1. they put a stamp of peer-review on a paper and 2. they serve as promotional venues where others get to hear about one's work.

    I am in a sub-field of CS that has seen *tremendous* growth over the past 6-7 years. Conferences have grown in size by a factor of close to 10! Because of this reason, the conferences have become useless for 2. If there are 500-600 papers in a conference, noone notices if you published one and what you published.

    Let me assure you -- this has made it a *hundred* times harder for junior faculty in mid-level schools -- eg, those who are not superstars at the time of graduation -- to get their work out and to get cited. These are the folks who need exposure the most, and in the current system, they don't get any. No-one notices or reads their conference papers, and they don't (yet) get invited to the more exclusive workshops that superstars and senior faculty get invited to. The more enterprising folks go around the country and give many talks -- but this is a very inefficient way of publicizing.

    The demise of the conference as a promotional venue has in fact *increased* inequality, not diminished it, and has made it even harder for folks with travel constraints, such as folks with caregiving responsibilities, to get the word out about their work.

    Of course different fields are different, but this is how things have worked out in my field.

  3. Each conference publication costs between $1500 and $3000, depending on the cost of the plane ticket, accommodation, and registration fee required to present it. I can easily afford this with grants now, and if I didn't have grants, my faculty salary is large enough to afford it from my discretionary income.

    But as a grad student, my advisor rarely had money, so I paid for all my own conference travel. That was only possible because of very scrupulous saving of my tiny stipend, and the fact that I lived in a low-cost-of-living region of the country.

    I have never figured out an incentive system to give conference student travel awards only to those students who truly need it (i.e., those students who have a paper to present and whose advisors/departments are unwilling or unable to fund the travel). Until we have such a system, requiring conference publications is a winner-take-all system that discriminates heavily against students who are not already successful (i.e., work for a grant-wealthy advisor).

  4. Using the word "discriminatory" goes too far. Is it harder for people in certain countries outside the US to attend conferences in the US? Yes. But it is also harder for people in the US who don't live near a major airport; for people who lack travel money; for people who are sick and find travel difficult; for people who have pets and have no one to care for their pets while they are away; for people with religious restrictions against traveling on or around certain holidays; etc., etc. Are these unfortunate? Yes. Should we, as a community do what we can to improve the situation? To an extent, sure. Is this "discrimination"? Hardly.

  5. I definitely sympathize with this as someone who is at a smaller non-elite private college that has barely enough funding for one (non-international) conference a year. Many smaller schools have even less funding, which effectively shuts out their faculty from computer science research.

  6. meh the four be with you

  7. I was recently at APPROX/RANDOM and it appeared poorly attended and made me question the expense and time to attend. These days, with most papers available on the ArXiv even before the conference submission, there is less incentive for people to go to conferences. For the most part I think conferences in TCS (and perhaps other CS fields as well) are serving as stamps of peer-review. One of the main advantages of going to conferences is to hear work not directly related to one's own, but given limited resources and other constraints, I think it is not feasible for many of us to attend more than one big conference. I think it makes sense to co-locate conferences like ALGO does in Europe rather than have multiple smaller ones. STOC/Theory fest is good but some one who needs to go to another major conference and a workshop may also find it difficult to attend it. I think it is useful to think about the issues of cost/benefit ratio of smaller conferences/workshops that are held in isolation.

  8. Fourth Edition of my P vs NP solutions: