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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Why Conferences?

An undergrad thesis from North Carolina State University tries to tackle the question as to why computer science has used conferences as its main and most prestigious publication venues. The author Elijah Bouma-Sims gives a synopsis with some interesting follow up conversation in this Twitter thread.

The upshot is that the conference culture grew organically early in computing and just took hold as the field grew. My personal non-scientific theory is that technology not available to earlier fields, namely jet airplanes, allowed CS to have national and international meetings that researchers could regularly attend. Before that conferences in more established fields like math were held either locally (AMS sectional meetings) or less often (ICM held every four years), traditions that continue to this day.

Covid has temporarily suspended fully on-site conferences, and new technologies allow us to have virtual meetings. It's still not clear what will be the new normal for conferences. I hope we get to the model where we have more virtual meetings and rarer in-person meetings that people make more of an effort to attend. Conferences focused on networking instead of publications.

The culture of conference publications has been slowly changing. Many subfields in CS, though not no much theory, have moved to a hybrid model where papers are submitted to a journal and those accepted are invited to be presented at a conference.

Conferences used to be the first place you would hear about new results but that's no longer the case. Papers posted on arXiv get noticed and Google Scholar doesn't distinguished citations to an arXiv paper differently from any other publication venue. 

Now you don't even need a presentation or a paper, just a promise of one. How many of you are excited about linear-size locally testable codes based on a talk announcement alone?

3 comments:

  1. I think another factor, at least with the Association for Computing Machinery, was the serious lag to achieve a journal publication versus the relatively short cycle for a conference proceeding. And now the Internet makes jet travel less necessary, with arxiv providing a serious unrefereed alternative. I notice that even ResearchGate might become a choice venue (i.e., thanks to Martin Dowd).

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  2. >Many subfields in CS, though not no much theory, have moved to a hybrid model where papers are submitted to a journal and those accepted are invited to be presented at a conference.


    Isn't this the de facto model in theory too? We have a journal called "FOCS list of accepted papers" hosted in arXiv.

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  3. That undergrad thesis is very well done! It does miss one truly important milestone paper: Cook's 1971 NP-completeness paper never appeared in journal form and is one of the most cited CS papers in history (if not the most cited one).

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