I missed the FOCS business meeting for no good reason.  But I heard after that there was some discussion along the lines of how many papers FOCS should accept with people vying for fewer papers and a more prestigious conference.  Apparently there were complaints from the old guys that most of the conference was under 35. (Remember, this is day-after gossip laced with truthiness – I wasn’t there.)

Anyhow, my real beef is with the number of conferences in our field.  Some are listed in the title of the post.  And these are only the conferences in the algorithms subdirectory of theory.  Under game theory you can go the FOCS/STOC/EC/ISIT/… route, under crypto, FOCS/STOC/CRYPTO/EUROCRYPT/… etc.  SO MANY CONFERENCES.

For blanket TCS conferences though, we look to FOCS/STOC in the US (and ICALP in Europe, which I have little experience with, so I will keep to the North American scene here).  But STOCS/FOCS are only blanket in terms of topics, not attendance.  A Joint Math Meeting this is not.  While I had a great time with my friends and colleagues who were there, it was the absences that were notable.  Even colleagues from schools in California weren’t there, despite the proximity. Whole institutions left unrepresented.  So even if I do make it to one of STOC/FOCS each year, what about those colleagues who choose to go to the other one.  Or opt out entirely, sticking to their SODAs and SoCGs.  When will I get to see them?

Then there are the more practical considerations.  So much travel!  As a grad student it was awesome.  Free trip.  Not a care as to where the money came from.  Time away from school.  But now.  So much travel!  Who will teach my classes?  Who will pay for this?  How will I recoup a lost weekend?  (Answer: no one; me; with grumpiness.)  Add the wash, rinse, repeat cycle of resubmitted conference papers.  More work for the many PCs that are formed.  And yes, there are practical considerations.  What model do we use?  What does the committee look like?  This has been discussed before.  I’m sure we can figure something out, even if we can’t agree on something.

So why can’t TCS have a SIGGRAPH or CHI or AAAI?  Why can’t we meet all in one place once a year?

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  1. Large-ish is good.

    The smaller-and-more-prestigious-FOCS group are loving that conference to death.

    As you point out, the diversity of attendees is already dwindling. Lets keep in mind that a conference which is ignored by large swaths of the field is anything but prestigious, regardless of how many papers they reject in the process.

    Unless these conferences evolve, they are destined to become legends only in their own minds.

    Meanwhile the rest of the field will attend one of SODA, ICALP or ALGO which are quickly becoming SIGGRAPH/CHI/AAAI-like in size.

  2. Paul Goldberg

    One suggestion that came up during that business meeting was a merger of STOC and FOCS into an annual event, which might lead to a larger meeting that most CS theorists would attend, even without giving papers. As I recall, the argument against was that we prefer two opportunities per year to submit papers to STOC/FOCS. But an advantage of a merger would be less temptation to resubmit papers to the same (kind of) conference, if you have a wait a year to make the resubmission.

  3. anonymous

    If my circle of acquaintances is at all representative, it seems like there is a solid majority in favor of fewer, larger, more inclusive, conferences. But there is no established mechanism to determine the opinion of the community, much less to implement change.

  4. CS Prof

    STOC/FOCS is neither representative of TCS, nor is going to survive, anyway.
    In the not so far future, I believe small conferences like STOC and FOCS will be abolished due to practical and financial considerations, and the field will move forward to journal submissions, with more free and good electronic journals (like ToC) taking a part in this process.

  5. JeffE

    CS Prof: Yeah, and monkeys will fly out of my butt.

    The problem with your prediction is that the core STOC/FOCS community *Truly Believes* that STOC and FOCS publish the best results in theoretical computer science, *and the rest of the computer science world actually believes them*. Like it or not, people use STOC/FOCS papers as a yardstick to measure excellence in theoretical computer science. Until *that* changes, STOC and FOCS will survive just fine.

    The current system works for the people the current system works for. So why should the people for whom the current system works change the way the current system works?

  6. Large-ish is good.

    “and the rest of the computer science world actually believes them”

    This is starting to change. Just look at the evolution of opinions on STOC and FOCS going back to when Lance started his blog.

    “The current system works for the people the current system works for.”

    Very much so, and this is not unique to STOC/FOCS. There are highly selective conferences in subfields of theoretical computer science who have refused to grow for the exact same reasons.

    This is why starting a new conference, such as SODA, COLT, CCCG, ITCS is often a more practicable solution as compared to reforming the status quo.

  7. CS Prof

    STOC/FOCS will probably not survive (as a leading venue at least), because Asian and European TCS is growing, and STOC/FOCS represents only US (and friends) TCS.
    The small group of people benefiting from the current STOC/FOCS affairs (as you correctly identified) is therefore, bound to shrink relatively, while funding in the US is going down.
    Meanwhile, even within the traditional US STOC/FOCS community, there are many voices calling to shut down or at least radically change the conference culture of the STOC/FOCS community.

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