FOCS/STOC: Protect the Venue, Reform the Meeting
by Boaz Barak and Omer Reingold
The debate about the future of FOCS/STOC has been long and heated. A wide range of criticism (containing at times contradicting complaints) was answered with one simple truth: FOCS/STOC have played and still plays an invaluable role for the TOC community. Indeed, the authors of this proposal have a deep connection to FOCS/STOC. Nevertheless, though often exaggerated, we do acknowledge the validity of many of the concerns regarding FOCS/STOC. As the community evolves, we feel the need to evolve its central meeting place. So while not broken, and not in an urgent need to be fixed, we put forth a proposal to improve (perhaps revive) FOCS/STOC.
FOCS/STOC play a dual role in our community: as both publication venues and as meeting places. In their former role, FOCS/STOC has been incredibly successful, every year many of the best papers in TOC appear in these conference, and FOCS/STOC papers (including recent ones) have led to major awards including ACM dissertation awards, the Grace Murray Hopper award, the Rolf Nevanlinna prize, the MacArthur fellowship and the Turing award.
Thus, while undoubtedly FOCS/STOC are not perfect publication venues, our thesis is that their main shortcomings are as meeting places. Indeed, attendance has been flat over the last decade or so, even as the field has seen significant growth and specialized workshops (such as those at the Simons Institute) often draw an audience half the size of FOCS/STOC. In particular we feel that while FOCS/STOC provides an opportunity for social meetings and small-group collaborations, it falls short in terms of the wider-range exchange of ideas (specifically, the ideas in the papers published in these conferences). We believe it is possible to revise STOC/FOCS to make them a significantly more attractive event (in a sense, a “must-attend” item on every theoretician’s schedule), and a better forum for exchanging ideas across subfields of TOC, while preserving their nature as publication venues (in particular, no dramatic changes in the number of accepted papers, nor in the selection process).
The crux of our proposal is a single combined FOCS/STOC meeting that will be longer (and scheduled appropriately with respect to the academic year) and that will be specifically designed to allow the spread of ideas of appeal to the general community (thus countering the fragmentation of the community) as well as forums for sub-communities to exchange more specialized ideas. While many details can be open to tweaking, in a nutshell we suggest to have an annual weeklong “Theory Festival”. This theory festival would contain presentations of the STOC and FOCS papers, as well as many other activities, including invited talks, tutorials, mini-courses, workshops, and more. The organizers of the theory festival, which would be logically separate from the FOCS/STOC PC’s, would take as input the paper selection by the PCs, but would have considerable latitude in using this input to assemble an attractive program, including a mix of plenary and highly parallel sessions, or any other way they see fit.
Our Proposal in More Detail
The core of our proposal is to collocate FOCS and STOC (and possibly additional events) into a single somewhat longer event at an appropriate time of the year (for example, after the end of the academic year). At least at first, the two PCs of FOCS and STOC will operate similarly to their current operation. In particular, a list of accepted papers (including links to online versions) will be made public in a timely fashion. In addition, a separate organizing committee will be responsible to the selection and scheduling of the joint event. The committee will have representation from the two PCs but will have a separate agenda: to create the most effective program, optimizing for the TOC audience rather than the authors. In particular, it is natural to expect that part of the program will be in a plenary session whereas the rest will be organized as a collection of sub-conferences/workshops in multiple parallel sessions.
Attendees of the joint conference should get an opportunity to catch up on the most exciting developments in TOC (research trends, results and techniques) that are ready for general TOC audience as well as more complete perspective in their specialized area of research. For this purpose, in either the plenary session or the parallel sessions, the organizing committee will not be limited to talks by authors of FOCS/STOC accepted papers. Important results that appeared elsewhere should be represented. In addition, surveys of collections of papers may be at times more effective than talks on individual results.
Let us emphasize that at this point, we are suggesting merely to change the event and make no changes to the paper selection process. That is, there will be two separate FOCS and STOC PC’s that will work on a similar schedule as they do today, where at the end of each PC’s process, the list of accepted papers and the electronic proceedings will be published. The only difference would be that the paper presentations would be deferred to the annual “Theory Festival” that is organized by a third committee. Of course, we are not ruling out making changes to the selection process as well. In fact we believe that decoupling to some extent the event from the selection might open some possibilities for improving the latter that would not be otherwise possible.
Advantages, Concerns and Possible Future Extensions
- As mentioned, the only change necessitated by this proposal is to the meetings, but FOCS/STOC can keep their character as publication venues (both for the authors as well as for external committees that evaluate TOC researchers). On the other hand, the organizing committee will be free to optimize the meetings for the audience experience and for the exchange of ideas. The meetings could also evolve and reflect developments in TOC as a growing research field.
- FOCS/STOC PCs will not need to select papers in multiple tiers. In addition, the organizing committee will also be free from choosing the “strongest” papers. The plenary session (while hopefully a prestigious talk opportunity) will not be intended as an award for papers (as again, the focus is on the audience not the authors).
- The scheduling choices will be intended to be “ephemeral”. The organizing committee will be free to use non-scientific considerations, including diversity of areas or speakers, in making these choices. It can be conveyed to the speakers that all FOCS/STOC papers were equally selected by the PC, and it would be “poor form” to list in the publication list on your CV or webpage the fact that the talk was presented in one session rather than the other. (Of course one can worry that people will still do that, but the risk in alienating potential evaluators will probably outweigh any benefit, and in any case we believe we should not make our events unattractive just to protect against the possibility of abuse.)
- The quantity and high quality of papers accepted in FOCS and STOC together, go a long way towards the effect desired by a federated theory conference (which may not be easy to obtain otherwise; also FOCS/STOC together may provide enough “critical mass” to encourage other conferences to colocate).
- A single event could significantly increase attendance. In particular, it could be easier for researchers with limited travel budget or other travel constraints (e.g. young children) to keep part of the community. Moreover, by “network effects”, with people knowing that this is the place they will meet most theorists, it may well be that the number of attendees in this event would be larger than the union of STOC and FOCS.
- Sub-areas that have grown distant from FOCS/STOC could be welcomed back. As a first step, they could be incorporated as invited talks without asking authors to give up on their more specialized venues. With time one may hope that more papers from these sub areas will be submitted to FOCS/STOC. Similarly, papers submitted to venues with inconsistent publication rules (e.g., some ECON journals) could be easily incorporated in the major meeting of the TOC community.
- A major concern is of increased fragmentation of the community due to additional parallel sessions in the non-plenary part of the program. We argue that the effect of a substantial part of the program (say half) being in a single session more than compensate for this effect.
- The organization committee will also have the flexibility of having plenary survey talks to expose attendees to ideas from outside their area. Furthermore, attendees that used to focus on a few areas of interest (which characterize in our opinions most of the attendees) are more likely to be exposed to talks outside of their area, given the more restrictive filtering offered by the plenary session.
- Some areas (for example Cryptography and Quantum Computing) are more likely to see increased attendance in talks, as at least some of the papers will be in the plenary session, and in any case, we believe there will be increased attendance over the current state. An important concern is the attention to papers that are in more isolated areas, and are not of wide enough appeal to appear in the plenary session. Care should be given to such papers in the program design. It is important to note that these kinds of papers suffer from lack of audience in the current system as well.
- One could worry that by moving to an annual publication cycle, papers presented will be more “stale” than the current model. We agree that this is a concern. However, we posit that FOCS and STOC are primarily meant to educate researchers about progress outside their immediate area. While even few months could be too long a wait to hear about the latest improvement on the problem you’re working on (which is one more reason to be grateful to the arXiv), waiting 6 months to a year to hear a (perhaps more mature and well digested) talk about exciting results in another area may well be acceptable (note that even specialized workshops find value in presentations of papers that are one or two-year old). The organizing committee will have considerable latitude in selecting the program and in particular, if the conferences contained a sequence of papers that improved on one another, it may decide to schedule a single talk that surveys all these papers.
On changes to FOCS/STOC as a publishing venue
We acknowledge that, despite their success, many of the critiques of FOCS/STOC are as a publication venue, including suggestions that they have become too selective, or not selective enough, papers are too specialized, or too shallow, that the deadline-driven process yield “half-baked” papers, and more. These issues deserve discussion, but we note that our proposal is largely independent of any modifications to the selection process to address those, and we believe would yield a more attractive event regardless. Moreover, as we mentioned, decoupling the selection from the event naturally allows some modifications such as selecting more papers, or having more deadlines, that may be infeasible in the current model.