Terrible things about conferences, ICALP 2022 requiring submissions in LIPIcs style, more terrible things about conferences, and a new life

I’m on the ICALP 2022 program committee (PC) and was apparently the first to complain when I saw the draft call for papers, and I asked that the requirement that submissions must be in LIPIcs style be put to a vote. Despite substantial support among the PC for not requiring the majority of authors to squander their time formatting in an exotic style submissions that will be rejected, the Supreme Court blocked the vote. Their main rationale seems to be ensuring correspondence between submissions and proceedings. Ironically, at the same time other conferences are allowing authors to publish in proceedings an abridged version of the (accepted) submission, to make it easier to publish the paper in a journal (which may not want to have a full version already in a conference). We are at the nadir in history where human effort is systematically wasted to produce versions that do not even pretend to be useful for readers — only to check boxes.

When I was at the IAS and was briefed about logistics, I was stunned when they asked me if I type my own papers, or if I needed help with that. I guess the next level will be if you need help with formatting your submissions.

Picture a 100-year old retired scientist who followed the field for 75 years, and who wants to make one more contribution. Even though they are no match for the raw power of a 15-year old, their ability to draw connections almost makes up for it, and their perspective is invaluable to the community. This scientist, whose equipment consists of a desktop from two human generations ago, miraculously held together and kept working through sheer love and intimate knowledge, is now being asked to format their paper in LIPIcs style… or to ask someone else to do it for them (talk about fostering collaboration).

Here’s a non-exclusive list of true, terrible things about conferences, most of which were discussed earlier on this blog (see tag utopia-tcs):

  1. Requiring submissions in proceedings format.
  2. Pre-registering papers by a deadline different than the submission deadline.
  3. Requiring authors to submit a separate 2-page summary of the paper.
  4. Ultra-strict page limits, summary rejection for any deviation.
  5. Suddenly being forced on a short notice to submit a dummy .pdf so that PC assignments can be made.
  6. Extending the list of topics two days before the deadline.
  7. Moving deadlines.
  8. Forcing authors to check multiple times the call for papers and/or constantly monitor email for any of these last-minute changes.
  9. In the lucky case of acceptance, following up with a barrage of emails involving minutiae such as underfull \hbox.
  10. Writing “this only takes 60 seconds.” For me (and, apparently, many others — otherwise why delay answering emails that take 10 seconds to answer?) attending to any task, following any instruction, even “blink” or “say yes” has a huge fix cost, maybe 30 minutes. So I translate 60 seconds to 31 minutes.
  11. Hosting the conference in places which are inconvenient, for the attendees and planet earth.
  12. Hosting the conference at times which are inconvenient for the attendees.
  13. Requiring in-person PC meetings whose outcome does not justify the costs.

As usual, people in a position of power do not have much incentive to fight to change the very practices that put them in that position in the first place. But even this cynical remark doesn’t tell the whole story, since the practices got worse with time, unlike the case of journals. One impression I have is that people have gotten so used to buggy software, constant updates, and general techno slavery that they just accept all of this as another inevitable misery in life… and by far not the worst! This last point is important, as I think a seeping philosophy that permeates much of the discussion and the decisions is that much more important things are at stake, so who cares about this? If you really want to spend cycles fixing something, then what about X? (It’s fun to think where you end up if you stretch this point.) But another life is possible.

One day, I will throw in my two cents and launch a new journal. Besides being electronic and free (like ToC) it will have the following features.

  1. Papers, if accepted, will appear in the authors’ chosen format. No conversion, and no additional effort, will be required for publication. All the effort will be exclusively directed at improving the content of the paper.
  2. Submissions can be by pdf attachment or by overlay, but not only to arxiv: to *any* repository. In particular, authors will not be required to get their paper to compile on the arxiv.
  3. The identities of the reviewers will be made public (in case of acceptance). This I am still debating, but so far I am leaning towards it. The problem that this is trying to address is that while you get reputation points for being on a program committee or on an editorial board, you don’t get many for being an unknown journal referee who is actually supposedly doing the hard work or finally really checking the proofs. Instead with public identities people can show off the hard work and their role in the community, as happens on more recent platforms like say stackexchange.
  4. Authors will be free to submit anonymously, or not. This choice will be made by the authors, not dictated by a committee.
  5. And perhaps the most consequential thing that I am still debating, should all submissions be public? (Maybe not.)

To finish on a high note, a great thing about conferences is the fast turn-around. It is really depressing — in other fields — to have to wait so long for any quantifiable feedback on your work, and this is definitely something which I liked about the TCS community. But, to come back to the mood of the post, this good aspect (and others) of conferences can probably be kept while rethinking the not so good. (For example, there could be a journal with deadlines similar to conferences, which is also what happens for grant proposals etc.)

Pitassi: “More and more, I’m starting to wonder whether P equals NP.”

It’s refreshing to hear other people are joining our “ranks,” especially after some have said that my belief that P=NP is a publicity stunt. (For context, you may want to read the first two sentences of my post.) I got the quote from the Simons Institute Newsletter, which points to a longer MIT Technology Review article to which I don’t have access. The newsletter article mentions two well-known surprising results (also on my list), and another cool one which came after my post and that I was thinking of adding. For more surprising results, see my list. What do you believe?