Russell Impagliazzo

My initial reaction is that this would be a huge mistake on the part of the
community.  STOC/FOCS is a well-respected ``brand'' among computer scientists,
including chairs, deans, and funders.  Diluting or making ambiguous the meaning of
a FOCS/STOC paper will have  a negative iimpact on the careers of all researchers in 
TCS, not just junior researchers.   If you want a conference along the lines you suggest in this proposal, why not create a new conference rather than changing the meaning of the name STOC dramatically?  If the new confernce overshadows STOC, then we can 
eliminate STOC later.  

I would not submit papers to a conference as in the proposal, under any name, or encourage my students to submit to it.  It seems to provide no additional benefit
over  having the paper in ECCC, and giving talks on the paper at university seminars.  
I might attend such a conference if it were conveniently timed and located, but would 
not go out of my way to attend.  I would not want to be on the program committee, if it requires one.  

If others reacted like myself, the main effect of the proposal within the theory community would be to merge FOCS/STOC into a single annual conference callled FOCS.  This
conference would be fiercely competitive, having an acceptence rate below 15%, unless researchers decided that it wasn't worth the gamble/wait and submitted their papers to
specialized conferences instead.  

As I mentioned above, the effect outside the theory community would be to make it harder to judge the quality of a theorist's publication record.  It would take some time before 
the distinction between ``old STOC'' and ``new STOC'' percolated to be general knowledge, and even then, the question of when the switch over occurred would have to be answered. 
If the graphics community changed say, SIGGRAPHICS to a non-competitve forum, it would be a while before I caught on, and would permanently impair my ability to judge a CV from graphics candidates.  I imagine the same thing would happen to non-theorists if we switched STOC to a non-competitive forum.  

I do not see any positive consequences at all.  Since I would not submit papers, or be
giving talks, going to such a conference would be a low priority for me, and I imagine
it would be likewise for colleagues that I am eager to talk to.  Thus, I can't see that
attendance will soar rather than drop percipitiously.

While there are always imperfections and small improvements and experiments are needed  in any human institution, STOC/FOCS as a bi-annual conference has been a
tremendous success so far.  They are the type of prestigious conferences that other areas have emulated.  People within and without theory know and respect puiblications in
these conferences.  Perhaps some of this respect is unwarrented, in that conference referreeing is short of journal refereeing, and program committees are fallible.  However,
I cannot see any benefit to moving towards the changes in the proposal, and see the possibility of significant harm.  

2 comments:

  1. Let me say that I disagree with almost all that is written here.

    Perhaps the main (or only) objection expressed by Russell here is that of "losing the prestige" of STOC.
    I believe that this is not a good argument. A conference should not be a place where "prestige" is decided or measured, and certainly a conference should not play a significant role for career development, as suggested by Russell. If promotions are decided by counting STOC/FOCS papers then we are already in troubles. Such decisions should be made based on specific and well substantiated considerations of the merits of a specific scientists, and not based on some general simple scheme of counting publications. In fact, I do believe that in most cases much more serious considerations are implemented, other than counting STOC/FOCS publications.

    Russell also claims that the proposed changes would lead to FOCS being more competitive. It seems (though he did not say this explicitly) that he regard this as another bad impact of the proposed changes. I disagree on this.
    If indeed STOC acceptance rate would shrink to 15% as Russell expects, this is not a bad outcome at all, in fact it will be much better than the current state of affairs. Because then people doing research in TCS would not be expected to publish regularly two STOC/FOCS papers per year, and not even one paper per year - it would be almost impossible. This would probably have very positive effects, I suspect, on the quality and versatility of research done in TCS. Instead of doing STOC-able research, always thinking in terms of research that can be "sold" to STOC/FOCS, one would be more free to develop longer research directions, aimed perhaps at more difficult, or "deep" problems.
    Again, the argument here is that the current system allows for ~150 accepted STOC/FOCS papers per year. My claim is that this is the worst rate possible, as it enables a specific non-negligible group of people to continue publish each year a STOC/FOCS paper, enslaving them, and in fact a large part of the community, to ONLY caring for STOC/FOCS publications. Making this impossible (as the proposed changes suggest) is a very good idea.

    Russell also claims that "Diluting or making ambiguous the meaning of a FOCS/STOC paper will have a negative impact on the careers of all researchers in TCS, not just junior researchers."
    I believe this is not true. One reason is that not all the community of TCS is represented in FOCS/STOC (in fact most researchers in TCS do not regularly publish in FOCS/STOC), and so one cannot claim such a universal statement.

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  2. Let me clarify. The above was written in resposne to a specific letter of Lance's. Unlike some of the other posts on this blog, I only
    addressed the impact of the proposal as written, not any of the alternatives, my philosophy of publications, or my vision of an ideal or improved publication format as written.

    One of the criteria he asked me to address was the impact of his proposal on the careers of young researchers. So by starting with addressing the impact of the changes in terms of careers, I did not mean to imply that the primary value of STOC/FOCS should be careerist. Conferences should be judged on their value to the attendees and the community, not to the authors.

    That said, I think it is naive to dismiss the significance of STOC/FOCS and other competitive conference publications in researchers' careers. Whenever I have dealt with a promotion case or a recruitment case, whether in theory or outside theory, there are essentially two parallel arguments that need to be made. First, and somewhat more important, there needs to be a narrative about the significance of their contributions to the field. This is what will get people excited. But narratives are squishy, and competing narratives are hard to evaluate. People also want objective confirmation of their opinions, and so there is always a publication count of some kind, often with comparisons to their peers. They needn't be FOCS/STOC papers; other conferences count in proportion to the reputation of these conferences. But they ask for acceptance rates for each conference, and publishing in non-selective conferences actually works against you if you do it too often.

    I'm not advocating the status quo, just describing it. It has its silly aspects, but I think pretty much any system would.

    Perhaps I was being a bit elitist in mainly discusssing the impact on researchers that publish in selective conferences. In my experience, a reseacher that does not publish
    at least sometimes in STOC/FOCs or equivalently
    selective conferences (e.g., SODA, Crypto, LICS,
    COLT) will have few career prospects as a researcher in theory. In any case, the field relies on ``certified'' succsessful theorists (award-winners, top 10 universities, etc.) who write letters of reference, open up new positions, and push granting agency budgets. The harder it is to certify ``success'', the harder in general being a theory-booster will be. So I stand by my statement, ``diluting or making ambiguous the meaning of a FOCS/STOC paper
    will have a negative impact on the careers of all researchers in TCS, not just junior researchers''. I meant, researchers of all seniorities, rather than to put a universal quantifier. But i think it would have an overall negative effect on the status of theory within CS, which would even hurt researchers who are not currently publishing in STOC/FOCS.

    The intention of the proposal was clearly to make the premier conferences less competitive, not more competetive. So pointing out it would have the opposite effect is pointing out a flaw
    in the proposal.

    My honest opinion is that competitiveness in our field is simple economics, not any kind of structural problem concerning our institutions.
    There are more qualified researchers than there are theory research positions. There are more great researchers than there are really great positions. Until this changes, there will be competitiveness, and it will seek an outlet. We can change what that outlet is (conference paper
    count, best paper awards, or journal publications), but we can't reduce comptetitveness overall except by increasing the number of jobs or decreasing the pool of researchers. The second wouldn't be healthy. Even the first would only be temporarty, since a
    great part of a research job is training and encouraging new researchers.

    So I think we are stuck with competitiveness, and need to find ways to live with it rather than futile efforts to suppress it.

    russell impagliazzo

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