Tag Archives: conference

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.

Work is work and it shouldn’t be expected on the weekends

written on December 27, 2013 and saved for publication until tenure

A month or so ago, the STOC’14 PC chair took an informal poll of when we wanted the PC meeting: Friday & Saturday, Saturday & Sunday, Sunday & Monday. What the hell?  Why not any two day combinations that don’t include a weekend day?  So it doesn’t get in the way of work?  What on Earth do you think a PC meeting is if not work?  So it doesn’t get in the way of teaching?  I am pretty sure all our department heads want us to go to conferences and take part in program committees and will happily accommodate a cancelled class or two or a sub by a graduate student or colleague.

My response to the PC chair was: “I would greatly prefer Fri-Sat or Sun-Mon so it doesn’t take the whole weekend away from me.”  In the background, my partner works in Portland during the week, and so we live apart during the week, and the weekend is the only time we have together.  Also, committing to work a Saturday/Sunday combination means 12 straight full days of work (on top of the cross country flight the program committee means) since taking a weekday off to compensate for the weekend is very difficult to arrange — guilt kicks in and I would inevitably work.  On a very serious note, down time is key to “work life balance” also known as one’s mental health.  We shouldn’t be defaulting to working on the weekend.  Our conferences shouldn’t be on a weekend either.  They should be on weekdays.  Weekends are for rest and weekdays are for working.  Anyone read about the labor movement?  In speaking to friends with kids, particularly dual-career couples, travelling over the weekend is not cool.

You know who doesn’t expect you to work on the weekend?  NSF.  Panels are on WEEKDAYS.  You know who else?  Europeans.  Dagstuhls are run Monday to Friday.  ESA is Monday to Wednesday.  ICALP is Monday to Friday.

So you know what?  If you want to retain more people in our field, and you want to seriously push work-life balance, you shouldn’t plan work events on weekends.  Keep them to weekdays.


Oh, the STOC PC meeting was Saturday/Sunday.  THANKS.

continued January 18, 2014:

Continued annoyance in regards to the STOC PC.  We have been asked, late on a Friday afternoon to pick 2 papers out of a stack of 40 to provide extra reviews.  By Sunday at 3PM.  Seriously?  I know we are all expected to work ALL THE TIME and are supposed to LIKE THAT.  But you know what?  I don’t.  I am tired of this expectation and I would like to protect some time to be free of work commitments.  Choosing papers for STOC is not so important that some task needs to be completed in a 2 day span over a weekend.

continued February 6, 2014:

There has been another emergency “feedback needed within 48 hours” emailed out on a Friday evening.  This is timely.

The negative impacts of random conference decisions

The NIPS experiment is making waves.  If you are unaware, for the last NIPS conference, the PC was broken into two independent halves A and B.  A random selection of the submissions were assigned to both committees.  The result: 57% of the papers that were accepted by committee A were rejected by committee B (and vice versa).

This is terrible for many reasons.  Some reasons that I have heard are the careerist issues (our jobs and promotion depend on accepted papers at top conferences) and the negative impacts on the Rate of Progression of Science.  I’d like to discuss two more reasons:

The random rejection model makes needless work

If the average number of times a paper is submitted to a conference before it is accepted is 2-3, then we as a community are doing 2-3 times more work when it comes to writing & publishing: formatting papers to the will of the conference, reviewing papers, serving on PCs, reassuring students, consoling ourselves over beer. Should we be spending our limited time & resources on this? I do understand that papers can improve between different submissions, but with higher quality, constructive reviews, resubmitting once would be much less a burden. And perhaps if people felt like the system wasn’t so random, we wouldn’t try rolling the dice so early and often.  And perhaps we would have time to do a more thorough job as reviewers.

The random rejection model likely negatively impacts underrepresented groups more

“Just resubmit your papers.”  I worry that this non-solution disproportionately and negatively impacts those in
underrepresented groups. It is known that those in underrepresented groups tend to suffer from more impostor syndrome; and it is known that those suffering from impostor syndrome tend to take rejections on face value (our work isn’t good enough) whereas those in dominant groups tend to blame the rejectors (they don’t know good work when they see it). We also (should) know that small things can have big effects.  One freshly minted professor emailed me:

I have personally experienced this during graduate school and I’m sure I and my students will experience this in future. A second or third year student puts in about one year worth of work with the hope that he/she will have his/her first top-tier (FOCS or ICML) conference paper soon. The rejections and bad reviews can essentially kill the confidence of that student. To some extent, this can also happen to the junior faculty.

One colleague worried about students dropping out of science altogether as a result of this.  On a personal note, I have definitely changed my publishing behavior to favor journals where, although the time lag can be great, comes with a discussion between author and reviewer via the editor. I have only had one ‘bad’ experience with trying to get something published in a journal. I would say that I’ve had a ‘bad’ experience with at least half of my conference submissions.  I have taken to rolling the dice once, if at all.

Add this together with our lack of double-blind reviews in TCS, we may be doubly hitting underrepresented populations, whose work is more likely to be dismissed by a dominant-group reviewer.

We should fix our conference system.  Or just trash it altogether.  I’d like to point out that the latter option would be better for the planet.

Women in Theory

I’m on my way back from the 3rd Women in Theory biennial conference. I was invited to the first one, as a participant, but was unable to go due to a combination of teaching my first course, recovering from mono and generally travelling too much in the early months of my post doc. While I’m sorry to have missed that, I am very happy to have been invited this time as a speaker.

The speakers were a cross section of career stages from junior faculty through well-established researchers and covered an array of topics in TCS from algorithms through security. And though the conference was targeted at the 40 or so grad students (only three of which were near graduation), I appreciated the chance to hear survey-ish talks and advice from the panelists (on which all the speakers sat) and meet the next generation of TCS leaders. Well, at least a targeted selection thereof.

Now, I know that such gender-targeted events garner criticism. Is it discrimination to not have male speakers and participants? You probably already know my opinion, but I’ll repeat it here. The gender balance is bad. It’s gotten worse at the undergraduate level since the 80s and 90s and is only very slowly heading toward balance at the graduate and faculty level. Any proponents of the “an unbalanced ratio is possibly the ‘natural’ ratio” can look at any number of fields, (chemistry, medicine, biology) to see that what once was an unbalanced ratio is now balanced. The unbalanced ratio results in discrimination, either explicit or subtle, which causes the numbers to grow ever slowly. Targeted programs and efforts help to overcome this discrimination. The imbalance hurts our field and any field that suffers this problem*. We are missing out on an untapped resource of talent. The Eva Tardoses and Jennifer Chaves and Cynthia Dworks of our world are not anomalies.

I digress. On Monday afternoon, I spoke to a room of 50 women. I have never spoken in front of 50 women before, despite having taught classes upwards of 200 students. In my classes, when I’m feeling lazy and don’t target students to answer questions but just draw from the hands that go up, I don’t get questions or answers from female students. But in this room, many answers. Many questions. Many volunteers. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so at ease giving a lecture before.

I decided, rather than give a talk delving into the details of my own research, or giving an overview of an area, I would give a tutorial. So, I picked up some chalk and taught planar graphs, their properties and how they can be used to design algorithms, for 90 minutes. It went well! I got many blush-inducing thanks after and that made me feel really, really good. I hope others can experience that at some point.

So finally, thank you to Shubhangi Saraf, Tal Rabin, Lisa Zhang and (local organizer) Moses Charikar for making this happen. I do hope it continues to, and I wouldn’t mind at all if it was expanded to have all levels included as participants, because I’d love to go back.

* I have to say that I am very curious as to how a field, such as English, where the gender balance is essentially inverted from our own, handles any discrimination that may arise toward men.


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?

Reviewing a paper multiple times

It has happened several times to me now.

I (sub)review a paper for a conference and for one reason or another the paper is rejected.  The next conference deadline rolls around and I get a request to review the same paper.  I have never turned down these requests until today, and even today it was a “soft” turn-down.  I’ve experienced three characteristic situations:

  1. The first version has a bug.  I recommended a reject.  In every case that I can remember, the second version has the same bug, so I happily send the same review to the PC member, always being honest about reviewing this for a previous conference.
  2. I loved the first version and recommended an accept.  I happily send the same review, perhaps with a little extra “sugar” in the hopes that it will be accepted this time, always being honest about reviewing this for a previous conference.
  3. I was luke warm about the first version.  I check to see that the paper hasn’t changed.  It hasn’t.  Should I submit the same luke-warm review?  I did this time, but was pretty strong about not really thinking it would be useful to the committee.

I’m starting to think that a second review by the same person for a different committee isn’t very useful.  Except perhaps in the first case when a bug is a bug is a bug.  (I had one situation where I reviewed an un-changing, incorrect paper three times only to see it one day be accepted to a conference – with the bug included – for which I was not a reviewer.)

So, my question is: what do you do in these situations?  As a PC member, do you welcome “re”reviews?  In all situations?  Or just some?

How do you find conference acceptance rates?

It’s getting to be that time.  Mid-tenure.  I apparently am supposed to include acceptance rates for conference publications.  Google got me about half the numbers, but for the rest … is it annoying to email the program chair for that conference?  Even if it was a few years ago?  How else would you find out?

Update 9/22: helpful links and suggestions in the comments below!

A flat 6-pack of SODA

Rightly chastised by Suresh for not blogging while at SODA [1] – enough time has passed for me to completely forget anything I might have wanted to say. But the timing is perfect. I am procrastinating writing a paper that I do not wish to write [2]. So here are six (not necessarily technical) things that I learned at SODA this year.

  1. The crossing number of K13 is unknown! This gem from Tasos Sidiropoulos’ talk on his work with Julia Chuzhoy and Yury Makarychev studying the approximating the minimum number of crossings required to draw a graph on the plane.
  2. John Hershberger lives in Portland!  Maybe not so exciting to you, but for theory-starved me, it is very exciting to learning that there is an algorithmer nearby.
  3. It is still possible to give a more efficient, deterministic, optimal algorithm for simple problems in general graphs. Monika Henzinger spoke on her work with Krishnendu Chatterjee on maximal end-components (like strongly connected components, but not). Later in the same session I was delighted by Valerie King’s laugh when a youthful speaker referred to a work of hers as ‘classic’.
  4. Listening to a talk with the goal of asking one or two questions results in increased attention and a deeper understanding of the material. I learnt this while acting as the MC for 1 ALENEX and 3 SODA sessions – knowing that I’m always left sad after giving a question-less talk, I wanted to make sure that I had a question ready for each of my speakers.
  5. There are still problems that we don’t know how to solve in bounded treewidth graphs: (a) thin trees (which can be used to solve the asymmetric travelling salesperson problem) as pointed to by Shayan Oveis Gharan in his work with Amin Saberi on the ATSP problem in surface-embedded graphs and (b) prize-collecting Steiner forests which are (among other things) shown to be APX-hard in bounded treewidth graphs in Bateni et. al’s work.
  6. 40% of Princeton students take first-year computer science and this course has the second-highest enrolment at the university.  Okay, this one wasn’t from SODA, but from ANALCO’s keynote talk by Robert Sedgewick. I have dreamt (in my teaching statement) of bringing such a stat to Oregon State University.  Now I have ammunition for the people upstairs [3].

[1] I decided to travel without my laptop and thought that painfully poking away at my touch phone would be a bit ridiculous.
[2] But should.
[3] Actually downstairs.

PC innocence

I’ve long been meaning to remark on my experiences of being on the SODA and ALENEX program committees this past year and fellow bloggers recent reflections on PC membership encourages me to finally post what little I have to say.

I went into the SODA PC expecting a lot of work.  I (mostly) cleared out a full month to do the reviews, which was not much less than the time allotted to finish the reviews.  Of the 48 papers [1] I had to review, I had approximately half sub-reviewed.  My sub-reviewers were amazing (timely, thorough, etc).  What I didn’t expect was the amount of time that went into discussing the papers.  With the virtual committee-meeting spanning roughly 3 weeks, I spent a lot of time going over those subreviewed papers, reading other PC member comments and adjusting or defending my opinion.  Since I didn’t plan for this, I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on it.  There was great potential to learn from the papers submitted and committee decisions, but the overwhelming amount of work didn’t leave time to synthesize conclusions at a higher level.  And then classes started up.  While it was a worthy experience, it doesn’t quite rise to the bar Claire experienced with her first SODA committee.

I think a physical PC meeting would have added the benefits that Bill highlights by developing a relationship with those members I didn’t previously know (which is many of them).  I still had the benefit of getting to know Dana Randall, who, although I have nothing to compare it to, did an amazing job and provided wonderful guidance along the way.

The ALENEX PC was much lower key.  13 papers to review.  And though getting subreviewers proved mostly futile (I think I managed to get 3 subreviewers – most of my emails for ALENEX were left unresponded to or turned down), the papers were slightly easier to review and I came out of the experience with a much better idea of what an experimental paper should look like.

I know our community has discussed the possibility of a tiered PC for STOFOSODA.  While I don’t know what the implications really would be, I can say that a less daunting experience (such as in a lower tier) would be preferable for a first-time PC experience.  I suppose one could emulate this by starting with workshop and smaller conference committees, but I think it is great that STOFOSODA has a history of including junior researchers on their PCs and one should hardly pick-and-choose when they are offered the chance to serve on their favourite conference’s committee.

[1] Yes, 48, oh ye in other fields with hierarchical committees.