Sanjeev Arora: Potential changes to STOC/FOCS: report from special FOCS session
As Boaz advertised, FOCS had a panel-led discussion on “How might FOCS and STOC evolve?” Here is a summary of that session by Sanjeev Arora:
This blog post is a report about a special 80 min session on the future shape of STOC/FOCS, organized by David Shmoys (IEEE TCMF Chair) and Paul Beame (ACM Sigact Chair) on the Saturday before FOCS in Philadelphia. Some 100+ people attended.
The panelists: Boaz Barak, Tim Roughgarden, and me. Joan Feigenbaum couldn’t attend but sent a long email that was read aloud by David. Avi Wigderson had to cancel last minute.
For those who don’t want to read further (spoiler alert): The panelists all agreed about the need to create an annual week-long event to be held during a convenient week in summer, which would hopefully attract a larger crowd than STOC/FOCS currently do. The decision was to study how to organize such an annual event, likely starting June 2017. Now read on.
Sole ground rule from David and Paul was: no discussion of open access/copyright, nor of moving STOC/FOCS out of ACM/IEEE. (Reason: these are orthogonal to the other issues and would derail the discussion.)
Boaz and Omer’s proposal in a nutshell (details are here): Fold STOC/FOCS into this annual event. Submissions and PC work for these two would work just as now with the same timetable. Actual presentations would happen at this annual event. But the annual event would be planned by a third PC that would decide upon how much time to allocate to each paper’s presentation—not all papers would be treated equally. This PC would also plan a multi-day program of plenary talks —invited speakers, and selected papers drawn from theory conferences of the past year including STOC/FOCS. (Some people expressed discomfort with creating different classes of STOC-FOCS papers. See Boaz and Omer’s blog post for more discussion, and also my proposal below.)
Tim’s ideas: It’s very beneficial to have such a mega event in some form. Logistics may be formidable and need discussing, but it would be good for the field to have a single clearing point for major results and place to catch up with others (for which it is important that the event is attractive enough to draw everybody). His other main point: the event should give a large number of people “something to do” by which he meant “something to present.” (Could be poster presentations, talks, workshops, etc.) This helps draw people into the event rather than make them feel like bystanders.
Joan’s email: Started off by saying that we should not be afraid of experimentation. Case in point: She tried a 2-tier PC a few years ago and while many people railed against it, nobody could pinpoint any impact on the quality of the final program. She thinks STOC/FOCS currently focus too much on technical wizardry. While this has its place, other aspects should be valued as well. With this preamble, her main proposal was: There should be an inclusive annual mega event that showcases good work in many different aspects of TCS , possibly trading off some mathematical depth with inclusiveness and intellectual breadth. Secondary proposal: to fix somehow the problem of incomplete papers. (She mentioned the VLDB model where the conference is also a journal.) Interestingly, I don’t detect such a crisis in TCS today; most people post full versions on arxiv. I do support looking at the VLDB model, but for a different reason: it’s our journal process that seems broken.
My proposal: Though it was a panel discussion I prepared powerpoint slides, which are available here. My proposal has evolved from my earlier blog post which turned into a B. EATCS article. A guiding principle: “Add rather than subtract; build upon structures that already work well.” The STOC/FOCS PC process works well with efficient reviewing and decision-making—though not everybody is happy with the decisions themselves. But the journal process is sclerotic and possibly broken, so proposals (such as Fortnow’s) that replace conferences with journals seems risky. Finally, let’s design any new system to maximize buy-in from our community.
So here’s the plan in brief: Keep STOC/FOCS as now, possibly increasing the number of acceptances to 100-ish, which still fit in 3 days with 2 parallel sessions but no plenary talks. (“If you are content with your current STOC/FOCS, you don’t need to change anything.”) Then add 3-4 days of activity around STOC including workshops, poster sessions, and lots of plenary sessions. Encourage other theory conferences to co-locate with this event.
See my article and slides for further details.
A Few Meta Points that I made.
Here are a few meta points that I made, which are interrelated:
We are a part of computer science. I hope to be a realist here, not controversial. Our work involves and touches upon other disciplines: math, economics, physics, sociology, statistics, biology, operations research, etc. But most of our students will find jobs in CS departments or industrial labs, and practically none in these allied disciplines. CS is also the field (biology possibly excepted) with most growth and new jobs in the foreseeable future. Our system should be most attuned with the CS way of doing things. To shoot down an obvious straw man, we should avoid the Math mode of splitting into small sub-communities and addressing papers and research to a small group of experts. Our papers and talks should remain comprehensible and interesting for a broad TCS audience, and a significant fraction of our collective work should look interesting to a general CS audience. (Joan’s email made a similar point about the danger of what she calls “mathematization.”)
Senior people in TCS have been dropping out of the STOC/FOCS system. I am, at 46 years of age, a regular attendee, but most people my age and older aren’t. I have talked to them, and they often feel that STOC/FOCS values specialization: technical improvements to past work, and that sort of thing. Any reform should try to address their concerns, and I hope the mega event will bring them back. (My advice to these senior people: if you want to change STOC/FOCS, be willing to serve on the PC, and speak up.)
Short papers are better. There’s a strong trend towards preferring long papers with full proofs. I consider this the “Math model” because it rewards research topics and presentation aimed at a handful of experts. I favor an old-fashioned approach that’s still in fashion at top journals like Nature and Science: force authors to explain their ideas in 8 double-column pages (or some other reasonable page limit). No appendices allowed, though reviewers who need more details should be able to look up a time-stamped detailed version on arxiv. In other words, use arxiv to the fullest, but force authors to also write clean, self-contained and terse versions. This is my partial answer to the question “What is the value added by conferences?” (NB: I don’t sense a crisis of incorrect papers in STOC/FOCS right now. Plus it’s not the end of the world if a couple percent of conference papers turn out to be wrong; Science and Nature have a worse track record and are doing OK!)
Towards the end of the session David and Paul solicited further ideas from the audience. Sensing general approval of the June mega event, they announced that they will further study this idea, and possibly implement it starting 2017, without waiting for other theory conferences to collocate. Paul pointed to logistical hurdles, which necessitate careful planning. David observed that putting the spotlight on STOC may cause FOCS to wither away. Personally, I think FOCS will do fine and may even find a devoted audience of those who prefer a more intimate event.
So dear readers, please comment away with your reactions and thoughts. This issue creates strong opinions, but let’s keep it civilized. If you have a counter proposal, please put it on the web and send us the link; Paul and David are following this debate.
ps: I am skeptical of the value of anonymous comments and will tend to ignore them (and hope that the other commenters will too).