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Communications of the ACM

ACM Opinion

On Vardi's Question on Conferences

As picked up by Lance, Moshe Vardi uses his Editor's Letter in the May CACM to start up a debate on the future of conferences in CS. While I agree with the view that the conference system in CS is cracking and needs an overhaul or replacement, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the undertones of the question. Certainly no one is opposed to conferences per-se. It seems that the real issue is "how much should we value conference publications relative to journal publications," with an implication that this will be used in hiring or promotion decisions.

From Algorithmic Game Theory
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Part 2 of previous coenmmt:One key difference between conference and journal refereeing is the ability to enforce changes. As a journal referee, I frequently recommend accepting a paper conditionally on certain changes. For example, clarifying a confusing part of a proof. With theory conferences, I can't do that. I can indicate changes I wish the authors would make, but then it's all up to them. Program committees are highly reluctant to reject papers on the grounds of lack of clarity, since that makes authors angry. (In practice, the PC is blamed more for rejecting good papers by well-known people than for accepting bad papers.) What happens is that poorly written or confusing papers (perhaps of dubious correctness) get accepted, with the authors being advised to clarify but not forced to. Responsible authors do their best, but others completely ignore the issue.Submission deadlines and page limits contribute a lot to this. There's a long tradition in theoretical CS of writing the entire paper the week before the submission deadline, with the writing often extending to the last hours. This is just begging for bad writing and mistakes. The way they page limits come in is that they provide a convenient excuse for not going into detail about crucial technicalities. If people actually wrote a lengthy journal version that corrected all errors and explained everything thoroughly, it would be great. However, once the conference paper is published, the authors have received 95% of the intellectual credit, so they often don't bother to document everything thoroughly enough to receive the remaining 5%.As you can see, I'm pretty upset about this. It makes me really angry, since the main argument in favor of conference publication seems to be rapid dissemination of research results. In the age of the internet, that's ridiculous. No conference in theoretical CS is as fast as the arXiv or reaches anywhere near as many people. There's a lot of value to meeting in person, giving talks, etc., but it should be decoupled from publishing research papers.

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