Discrimination and the conference publication system

After Trump’s travel ban was upheld by SCOTUS, I started thinking of ways that we could materially help our affected students and colleagues. Those on visas from “banned” countries are at best stranded. But it goes from bad to worse quickly. Will their parents be able to visit? Will students on F1 visas be able to use CPT and OPT for internships? Will those on H1s have any chance at permanent residency?

Of course, I’m reminded that for students studying in the US on single-entry visas from many more countries than just the “banned” countries, including China and Vietnam, life has always been difficult. For a trip home, you many need many months (and an understanding advisor) to have time to reapply for a visa to return to your studies. Your parents may not be lucky enough to get a visa to ever visit you. And those conferences that are out of the US? Well, those are likely impossibilities, and this greatly impacts your ability to publish and network.

And how about non-US based researchers who are citizens of banned or otherwise unwelcome nations? Can they as easily attend US conferences, such as STOC, FOCS and SODA, which are almost always in the US?

So what we have is a conference publication system that is structurally discriminating, as a result of the institutional discrimination of US border control. (If the notion of individual, structural and institutional discrimination are new to you, here’s a short explanation.) US law restricts the travel of people based on their country of origin and current residency status (institutional discrimination). Our field, for people to succeed, depends largely on their ability to publish papers. Since conference publications are heavily weighted and since every conference I can recall submitting to has a “one author must attend the conference to present the paper” rule, one’s success depends on one’s ability to attend (or have a co-author attend) the conference (structural discrimination). And since conferences are so normalized, it is expected that junior researchers will do the attending and presenting as much as possible so that other people “get to know you” (again, structural discrimination).

But the discrimination doesn’t end there. We have heard reports of the individual discrimination that women face at conferences (for example in statistics and machine learning and theoretical computer science). You don’t have to be an idiot to understand (or you can dig up the science that will help you accept the fact) that when someone faces individual discrimination, often they will avoid the situations where they face that discrimination.

And never mind the myriad of other reasons why people can’t or choose not to attend conferences: disability, care-taking responsibilities, shyness.

Let me spell it out. In order to really succeed in most areas of computer science, you need to publish conference papers and this, for the most part, means attendance at those conferences. But because of the institutional discrimination of border control laws and the individual discrimination that individuals face and the structural discrimination that others face, computer science discriminates based on nationality, gender identity, disability, and family status, just to name a few aspects of identity.

Tell me, how does that discrimination help advance science?

Until we get serious about making real structural changes — fundamentally changing the way in which we are expected to disseminate our work and how our work is evaluated — I fear that we will be discussing the same issues of representation in computer science for decades to come. Perhaps in the past, it was most efficient to share ideas (among mostly white, mostly male) scientists by gathering them together at a conference. But now, in the age of email, videoconferencing, instant messaging, and arXiv, its a little ridiculous that we cling to such old fashioned modes.

So while I don’t have an immediate idea to help students and colleagues impacted by Trump’s “constitutionally sound” travel ban, we could make some positive change for those and others, and computer science more broadly, in making conferences an exception rather than the rule.

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