Publish and perish

Moshe Vardi’s latest insight in the Communications of the ACM (whose title we adopt for this post) agrees with our previous post “Because of pollution, conferences should be virtual.” Vardi calls for “sweeping policy change […] requiring that authors of accepted papers that must fly to participate in a conference may opt out from in-person involvement and contribute instead by video.” Vardi gives some indication of the environmental impact of the travel-based system, and further suspects that in-person conference participation is “much less valuable than we would like to believe.”

These issues are closely related to the decades-old discussion of journals vs. conferences. Several older posts on this blog were devoted to that. Lance Fortnow, back in 2009, wrote that it’s Time for computer science to grow up. The full text of this article is premium content, but you can read a pre-publication version here. Basically, he argues in favor of a journal-based publication system.

Apparently in response, judging from the title, Boaz Barak wrote a piece titled Computer science should stay young. I can’t quickly find a link to the whole thing, but his bottom line is online “I disagree with the conclusion that we should transition to a classical journal-based model similar to that of other fields. I believe conferences offer a number of unique advantages that have helped make computer science dynamic and successful, and can continue to do so in the future.”

I disagree that conferences are young. They belong to the BI (before internet) era, and so look rather anchored in the past to me. Historically, I also suppose in-person discussion predates writing, though this is irrelevant. What is young is the health impact of pollution (Fortnow and Barak’s pieces don’t touch on health issues). (By health impact I include climate change, but I prefer not to use that term for various reasons.)

And what is young and cool is arxiv overlay journals, TCS+ talks, videoconferences, ECCC, etc.

Instead, we impose on our community most inconvenient transoceanic flights. To end I’ll quote from Oded Goldreich’s my choices:

Phoenix in June: […] One must be out of their mind to hold a conference under such weather conditions. I guess humans can endure such weather conditions and even worse ones, but why choose to do so? Why call upon people from all over the world to travel to one of the least comfortable locations (per the timing)?

8 thoughts on “Publish and perish

  1. However, the journal model is broken, too. We have individual editors who send things off to, say, three isolated reviewers with little context or peer pressure to render feedback quickly. Reviewing requests arrive at random times, so the reviewer does not have the advantage of being able to block out some time in advance for reviewing, as one could do if one agreed to be on a PC.

    Even a poorly attended talk at a conference is likely to provide greater exposure and chance for receiving feedback than a journal or conference proceedings article.

    The PC process itself, with all its flaws, guarantees that a large amount of reviewing happens in a short time frame. There is peer pressure to get reviews done, and there is also the value to PC members of being pushed to read (or follow the thread of) a large amount of the current research in the field, and learn about the judgements of their peers, even on subjects outside their own expertise. (The “revise and resubmit” that Vardi advocates seems like a good idea, but conferences with rolling deadlines are an even bigger strain on the PC members than TCS ones because they require a long-term commitment from the PC over many months.)

    I do agree that with better technology we should be able to handle remotely given talks but, like our workshops, conferences exist and are seen as valuable in other fields even when they are not tied to publication. There are many times when an in-person casual conversation at a conference/workshop has saved me from months of work or led to new directions. These kinds of exchanges are valuable for the progress of the field. How do these happen otherwise?

    There are two somewhat related developments that have impacted travel in TCS in the last few decades:
    – the proliferation of conferences so that there is always another submission deadline coming soon.
    – the rise of the invited workshop: Starting from a workshop or two per year at Oberwolfach to dozens of workshops at Dagstuhl, DIMACS, BIRS, Simons, Bertinoro, etc.

    Both of these have tended to increase travel (especially as some of the locations are remote from all research institutions). Though the proliferation of conferences was largely a function of the publication pressure, it was also about community. However, the success of the workshops is entirely based on these community benefits rather than on the publication.

    Clearly conferences that are merely publication venues and do NOT further the community/field in other ways are an environmental waste. However, we are going to face hard environmental tradeoffs for more than publication-oriented conferences and we need to include the full spectrum of workshops and other meetings as well in our calculations.

    1. I have put now online a preprint of my 2016 piece on

      I agree that environmental impact is a consideration, and agree with Paul that if a conference is merely a place where people come to present their paper, as opposed to exchange ideas, then there is no point in having it.

      Many people, myself included, already try to minimize our travel because of family reasons. The fact that we still do make the effort to travel to workshops, even when we are not presenting any paper, is a sign that technology has still not managed to replace in-person interactions for collaborations and exchanging ideas.

    2. Thank you for the thoughtful message and for providing context for the discussion, Paul. Also in reply to Boaz, I don’t think anyone is seriously thinking of eradicating physical interaction just yet. But many people think that the travel the community is demanding is too much, for multiple reasons. We could still have select workshops, and I am not sponsoring a secret police that would arrest you if you attempt a research visit on your own. In other words, if you want to travel to work with a team elsewhere, that’s great. But let’s not systematically impose this on everyone. I think the question really is what the community should demand from the people who try to make a living of research, and from the world they live in.

      I think a policy change, like in the previous post and also in Vardi’s piece would be good. At least we should give the option to authors to present remotely. Why punish researchers because they find it difficult to travel to Phoenix in June, or because they are morally opposed to air flights?

  2. I have often received useful feedback from the referees on my journal submissions.
    The situation could become even better once fewer conferences serve as publication venues.
    The current model leads to the same paper being reviewed multiple times for several conferences and journals. This is a waste of referees’ time, creates delays and the resulting time pressure can only degrade the quality of the reviewing.

    1. Pascal, I completely agree. For example many papers get submitted multiple times to STOC/FOCS. Is this really how we want things to work?

  3. Boaz and Paul touched the point: “if a conference is merely a place where people come to present their paper, as opposed to exchange ideas, then there is no point in having it.” Then not only “physical” conferences as such, but also the suggestion by Moshe Vardi of “skype type presentations” would be completely obsolete. Unfortunately, this following “if” (presenting+publishing in the proceedings) seems to be the main (albeit unwanted) role of TCS conferences in the last decades. Programs are fully filled with formal talks, most interesting part (exchange of ideas) reduces to sporadic “small talks” in corridors during the breaks. Turning conferences back to “meetings of exchange of ideas” is now a hard task (habits are now “established”). Therefore, hard replacement by new type of meetings could be even easier. ITCS (Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science conference) is a nice attempt in this direction.

    Regarding journals: I see them just as archiving (and sanity check) avenues. After we already have Arxiv, ECCC and similar sites, journals are now not the “prime sources of knowledge” anymore. So, ideally, conferences should be meetings of researchers to exchange ideas (talks only for interested people, with plenty of time for informal discussions), journals for archiving. Results then should be treated as “announced” (not “published”) if they were told to participants of a conference, and treated as “published” only after they were subsequently published (refereed, and archived). So was in the former USSR. In retrospective, this “science doing” system (unlike the terrible state system there), was not so bad, after all. Say, papers published in conference proceedings were treated as they should be treated: just preliminary reports.

  4. (For some reason my earlier comment was not published. Sorry for cross posting).

    Re Paul, I don’t think the journal model is broken at all. On the contrary. Journal publications take longer (apart from the problem of resubmissions to conference which renders conferences as even slower than journals). But this is a good and desirable outcome, or at least a necessary one. Research, for most part, should be done carefully and rigorously. When it is done rigorously it is slow. When it is done haphazardly as sometimes is the case in conference publications it is indeed quicker.

    Second, most of Paul’s points seem unrelated to the original question. Even if you prefer the conference reviewing process, this has not much to do with the question of having a physical meeting and talks. The same reviewing mechanism can be tailored for a journal publication. Eg, STOC can stay almost the same while not having talks. Only proceedings, and videos, etc.

    Third, I am sure that for many people physical meetings are helpful. But this cannot serve as an indication that for all people this is the case. For some people a well written paper with all the details included is more desirable.

    Fourth, the emphasis on the conference model seem to endanger the future of the field, as the field relies not on archived science, but on ad hoc community building and temporary personal interactions.

    1. Thank you for your message! I checked and your previous comments ended up in the spam. Sorry about that. I would be curious to know why it was tagged as such and even more why this identical one was not.

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