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Communications of the ACM


The Dissemination Game: Incentives of In-Person vs Virtual Participation

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Incentives are changing the effectiveness of computer science conferences, but perhaps better conference design can improve them.

  • Authors who attend in person play a significant role in dissemination of the published results, by attending many presentation sessions, and discussing work with authors.
  • Authors who attend virtually will present their paper, but generally not attend other sessions, and do not play a significant role in disseminating other published results.

A central driver of academic innovation is the dissemination of ideas and academic conferences are a main vehicle for such dissemination. When we spend several days together in person, attending talks, poster sessions, and informal conversations we learn about advances in our area of research and also adjacent areas. Back in our offices, we propagate these learnings in our research network and important results become known. Moreover, a critical egalitarian feature of the computer science conference culture is that anyone can write a great paper, submit it to a rigorous (and now typically) double-blind review, and earn the opportunity to present it in front of the field's experts.

These advantages of conferences are being challenged by a shift in preference of some authors to virtual participation. Here are the main incentives at play:

  1. In-person attendance is costly (time and money) and (a) many may prefer to attend virtually and (b) some may be unable to attend in-person for financial, visa, or health reasons.
  2. In-person attendance results in far greater participation than virtual attendance because the "outside option" (what an attendee might do instead of participating) is of far higher value when attending virtually than it is when attending in person. For example, most virtual attendees do not clear their schedule of other meetings while attending a conference virtually.
  3. The in-person conference is lower quality when many presenters are remote. The experience is worse due to lower participation and less discussion, and the conference is less effective at dissemination of results.

Due to the implication (1) => (2) => (3), many conference organizers have opted to shut down (1) virtual participation by paper presenters, thus returning how conferences were before the pandemic. Other organizers have allowed (1) and have experienced the negative impact on (3). It would be great to be able to fix (2) by incentivizing virtual participation at the same level as in-person participation. This would be great because we could perhaps then obtain comparable interactions and dissemination at a fraction of the cost (time and money). Unfortunately, fixing (2) has proven challenging. The following compromise proposal allows (1) without compromising (3) and fixes the incentives for paper presenters who might be inclined to present virtually and free-ride on the efforts of others to disseminate their work.

Proposal: Run separate in-person and virtual meetings, granting authors of accepted papers the choice of which meeting they prefer to present their paper in.1

1. The in-person meeting happens first, and presentation in the in-person program requires in-person attendance, talks are live streamed to virtual attendees (but virtual attendees cannot present).

2. The virtual meeting happens second (perhaps a month later, perhaps six months later to bring the community together off-cycle, or perhaps entirely asynchronously with authors only submitting videos for the video library), and includes virtual presentations of all papers that were not presented in person.

This proposal has some good features:

  • Authors that want their work disseminated by a captive audience have to agree to be part of that captive audience, i.e., there is no free riding on dissemination.
  • Authors that just want a publication and do not care about dissemination can choose to present virtually.
  • Those receiving last-minute visa denials can have the second-best option of presenting in the virtual conference.
  • The in-person meeting can be smaller and with less parallelism, focused on the papers of authors who choose to participate in person.
  • Compared to forcing authors to present in-person, organizers under this proposal have an incentive to ensure that the in-person meeting is valuable, and the perception of value can be quantified by choices of authors over the in-person and virtual presentation options.

This proposal has two unfortunate features which would be great to improve on.

The first is that authors with visa-denials are unfairly relegated to the virtual venue, which is less good for dissemination. To be more equitable with visa-denials, if (1a) and (1b) can be honestly separated, the few visa denials could be allowed to present virtually during the in-person meeting. Alternatively, authors with visa denials could be given the option to present their paper in-person in the conference's next edition or a sister conference in a country that they can access. 

The second unfortunate feature is that preferences for in-person attendance may be non-uniform across subcommunities, resulting in more separation between these communities and less mixing of ideas and possibility for forging connections across them. This issue does not seem possible to circumvent without mandating in-person attendance, and if the above proposal is executed on, it would be good for conference organizers to collect the statistics on whether some subcommunities are choosing virtual rather than in-person in disproportionate numbers.

This proposal allows authors to choose to publish their papers at lower cost (time and money), but with lower benefit of dissemination.  f some authors prefer this outcome for their work, it does not harm the authors who prefer to publish and disseminate. All authors can have the conference experience that they prefer.


1 This proposal omits discussion of good practices of running hybrid and virtual meetings. While there is a wide variance in quality of hybrid and virtual meetings, it is possible to do them very well, with good technology and buy-in from the research community.


Jason Harline is a professor of computer science at Northwestern University, a co-founder of interactive virtual event platform Virtual Chair, and a Program Chair for the 2023 ACM Conference on Economics and Computation.


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