Turning STOC 2017 into a “Theory Festival”
This blog post seeks to solicit input from the theoretical CS community on possible changes to STOC starting 2017. This planning was set in motion as a result of a long discussion session at FOCS 2014 (see these two earlier posts) when strong support was expressed for a longer “theory festival” that would include STOC but have have other events, and broader appeal.
The SIGACT executive committee has asked us (Sanjeev, Boaz, Piotr, Omer and Tim) to prepare suggestions for the scope and shape of such an event, which we will present in the STOC 2015 business meeting. We welcome your input, either as comments below or as email to the address theoryfestival at gmail.com. We are also studying conference structures in other research communities, and soliciting opinions directly from many individuals.
Main consideration: What role should STOC play these days, now that papers are electronically available many months before the conference? Perhaps the focus should be on promoting network effects. Exchange of ideas between sub-communities is an important feature of theoretical CS, and one of the main reasons for holding a “big-tent” conference in the first place. An event with a bigger menu of activities to pick and choose, as well as a strong plenary component, could serve a variety of audiences and bring together people from different subfields, potentially increasing attendance. This means papers get more exposure; and attendees have a higher probability of connecting with colleagues, all of which make the conference even more attractive, thus creating a virtuous cycle.
What kind of activities might such a “theory festival” contain above and beyond a typical STOC? Some options are:
- Plenary talks: In recent STOC/FOCS’s there has been very little room for them; which is a waste of a rare opportunity when broad swaths of the theory community get together. Such plenary talks could contain:a) “Outward looking talks” by leading researchers in adjacent fields, whether it’s other parts of computer science or other sciences such as mathematics, physics, biology or economics.
b) “Inward looking talks” by leading theoretical computer scientists that can survey for the audience recent advances in some area of TCS. (Recent STOC/FOCS’s have sometimes contained such talks, but often very few of them.)
c) Presentation of recent technical work, whether it is from the current conference (where typically these days only the best paper awardees are presented in a plenary session) or top papers from other theory conferences.
- Workshops/tutorials: Recent FOCS/STOC have had a day of these, but it would be good include more “mini workshops”, ranging from a couple hours to a full day. Researchers often have many time and travel budget constraints which sometimes preclude them from going to a broad conference such as STOC/FOCS where only a tiny fraction of the talks will be in their immediate area. Having a specialized workshop as part of it might make it more appealing, promote information exchange within subcommunities and allow subcommunities to present their most important work in a polished form to the STOC attendees.
- Social activities: These bring the community together and help researchers of different sub-fields, geographical areas, and seniority levels get to know one another. Currently, STOC/FOCS have little room for these.
- Poster session, rump session, etc.: Poster sessions (consisting of papers selected by the PC) are an important part of conferences such as NIPS. They present information in a way that makes it possible to interactively browse through a vast menu, and ability to determine the quantum of time and attention (whether 2, 5 or 10 minutes) to devote to each. Poster sessions have had limited impact on theory conferences so far but this could easily change. If poster sessions were selected by the PC, they would attract better papers, which in turn would draw a bigger audience, which in turn would attract even better papers. Poster sessions could also give smaller sub-communities within theoretical CS a more permanent place at STOC, instead of being represented by a couple of papers.
We’ve been tossing around some of the above ideas, but we would love to hear more suggestions for other activities and content that could make the conference more attractive for you.
Alas, even if STOC expands to 5 or 6 days, it may not be possible to fit everything without some tradeoffs. So it is important to us to learn which tradeoffs are acceptable to you. Possible approaches to get more flexibility in scheduling include:
- More parallelism – moving from 2 parallel sessions to 3 parallel sessions for those talks that are not scheduled in the plenary session. (Note however that if there is 50% growth in attendance then each talk could still get the same visibility. In addition, accepted papers could be presented in evening poster sessions.)
- Paper presentations of varying lengths. Some papers presented at plenary sessions; others presented in shorter talks (possibly accompanied by poster presentation), as is done at NIPS. One can also have a “fast forward session” (as at SIGGRAPH) where authors give pointers to look for in the parallel sessions. Experimenting with different talk for a brief presentation of their paper (aka “advertisement talk”) so that people know which formats might be a good idea regardless of schedule constraints — we have become very used to the standard format of a 20 minute talk in 2 parallel sessions, but there may be other ways to facilitate an exchange of ideas, and enable participants to get samples from areas of research outside their own.
- The default mode presentation mode for most STOC papers could be as a poster presentation together with a 3-5 minute “advertisement talk”. A subset of papers would be selected for the plenary session (which would, as mentioned above, feature also TCS papers from other conferences). Other papers might be presented as part of the specialized workshops and tutorials.
What do you think? What would make you more likely to go to STOC? What changes could turn your off? Please do comment below.
Two requests: First, we prefer signed comments, but if you must comment anonymously, please include some information on your research area, country where you work, and your current academic status (e.g., student, faculty, postdoc etc..) and any other pertinent information. One of our goals is to understand whether STOC/FOCS serve some populations better than others. Second, please make no comments about open access and copyright issues, or issues such as conferences vs journals, as those are beyond the purview of this working group that is focused on making STOC a better event for the people that attend it.
We will monitor these comments until the STOC 2015 business meeting where we hope to hear from you in person. We are looking forward to your input!
Sanjeev Arora, Boaz Barak, Piotr Indyk, Omer Reingold and Tim Roughgarden