Conferences have three roles; these roles should be separated.
A healthy discussion is taking place in the computer science community on our publication culture. It was spurred by Lance Fortnow's 2009 article ; now Moshe Vardi has taken the lead to prepare a report on the topic, following a workshop in Dagstuhl in November . The present article and one that follows are intended as contributions to the debate.
One of the central issues is what to do with conferences. Fortnow had strong words for the computer science practice of using conferences as the selective publication venues, instead of relying on journals as most other disciplines do. The criticism is correct, but if we look at the problem from a practical perspective it is unlikely that top conferences will lose their role as certifiers of quality. This is not a scientific matter but one of power. People in charge of POPL or OOPSLA have decisive sway over the careers (one is tempted to say the lives) of academics, particularly young academics, and it is a rare situation in human affairs that people who have critical power voluntarily renounce it. Maybe the POPL committee will see the light: maybe starting in 2014 it will accept all reasonable papers somehow related to "principles of programming languages," turn the event itself into a pleasant multi-track community affair where everyone in the field can network, and hand over the selection and stamp-of-approval job to a journal such as TOPLAS. Dream on; it's not going to happen.
We should not, however, remain stuck with the status quo and all its drawbacks. That situation is unsustainable. As a single illustration, consider the requirement, imposed by all conferences, that having a paper pass the refereeing process is not enough: you must also register. A couple of months before the conference, authors of accepted papers (at least, they thought their paper was accepted) receive a threatening email telling them that unless they register and pay their paper will not be published after all. Now assume an author, in a field where a conference is the top recognition, gets his visa application rejected by the country of the conference — a not so uncommon situation these days — and does not register. (Maybe he does not mind paying the fee, but he does not want to lie by pretending he is going to attend whereas he knows he will not.) He has lost his opportunity for publication and perhaps severely harmed this career. What have such requirements to do with science?
To understand what can be done, we need to analyze the role of conferences. In an earlier article on this blog  I described four "modes and uses" of publication: Publication, Exam, Business and Ritual. From the organizers' viewpoint, ignoring the Business and Ritual aspects although they do play a significant role, a conference has three roles: Publication, Communication and Sanction. The publication part corresponds to the proceedings of the conference, which makes articles available to the community at large, not just the conference attendees. The communication part only addresses the attendees: it includes the presentation of papers as well as all other interactions made possible by being present at a conference. The sanction part (corresponding to the "exam" part of the more general classification) is the role of a renowned conference as a stamp of approval for the best work of the moment.
What we should do is separate these roles. A conference can play all three roles, but it can also select two of them, or even just one. A well-established, prestigious conference will want to retain its sanctioning role: accepted papers get the stamp of approval. It will also remain an event, where people meet. And it may distribute proceedings. But the three roles can also be untied:
Conference organizers should not be concerned about lost revenue: most authors will still want to participate in the conference, and will get the funding sinceinstitutions are used to pay for travel to present accepted papers; some new participants might come, attracted by more interaction-oriented conference styles; and organizers can replace the requirement to register by a choice between registering and paying a publication fee.
Separating the three roles does not mean that any established conference renounces its sanctioning status, acquired through the hard work of building the conference's reputation, often over decades. But everyone gets more flexibility. Several combinations are possible, such as:
Once we understand that the three roles are not inextricably tied, the stage is clear for removal for some impediments to a more effective publication culture. Some, not all. The more general problem is the rapidly changing nature of scientific publication, what may be called the concentric waves of publication. That will be the topic of my next article.
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