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Written by Dr. Moshe Vardi, prolific academic author and editor in chief emeritus for Communications of the ACM.


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    The overall argument is that conference publication models slow research progress, increase review workloads, and cause massive environmental impact.

    At the same time, the ACM is embroiled in controversy surrounding open access to research. Their response to that controversy here.

    Lots of signs pointing to a need for significant change in computer science academic process.

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      Re: the ACM, I said this on twitter.

      It’s pretty simple. Don’t give them money. Publish in journals that are open access.

      There are several for CS already.

      Sure, they’ve written a pretty rebuttal, but they’re also full of shit. Paywalls for scientific research hurt the poor and mostly support parasites.

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        Give ACM money, get access to their treasure trove of research, do better research, and publish that in open journals. Enough people doing that lkng enough diminishes the value of ACM or number of citations of ACM papers.

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          sci-hub and any number of your academic friends already have access to ACM’s research and will happily share it with you on request.

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      Genuine question: what actual value are these conferences providing to attendees vs, say, the speaker just making a video and hosting it on the web?

      I’ve been to packaging machinery conferences, Big Data conferences, general tech conferences, and all of them seem to serve a purely commercial purpose: I get tchotchkes, my badge gets scanned a bajillion times, and then I get a looooot of spam. I don’t even mean targeted emails! It’s stuff that’s so mediocre that my various email accounts have already flagged it into my junk folder.

      Lately I’ve been saying “Naw, thanks. Save the train/airfare and let me spend a few days reading or watching training stuff at home.” Am I nuts?

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        From personal experience, I would say the single biggest value is in networking. If you attend a talk, you have something to talk about with a person who is in forefront of their research, in a topic that the person is clearly interested in at the moment. If you have something interesting to say, perhaps that would turn out to be a collaboration at a later point.

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          Are the odds of that better than a tweet or an email? I mean, I’ve attended talks at these conferences and given talks at my company, and one thing I’ve noticed: most people are kind of tired after speaking (or listening!) for 30-90 minutes. I’m mostly a space cadet after those conferences, and I find I don’t really retain well, even if it’s a 1:1 convo. Do you have that same problem? If so, what do you do to to help that?

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            Typically, for academic conferences, one gets to talk for 20 minutes, followed by a few minutes of questions. Anything that requires more in depth answers get taken offline which essentially mean in person chats immediately after the talk. Most people in academic conferences do not listen to talks continuously either. People are usually selective in attending specific talks in a conference, with the in between time spent talking to people around you who work in similar or interesting fields. The dynamic is rather different from the few industry talks I attended.

            My experience has also been that tweets and emails have very different effect from meeting in person. Specifically, answering emails can be postponed, and tweets can be ignored. But, a person in front of you usually holds your attention if he has something interesting to talk about.

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              Interesting… I suppose I haven’t really attended purely academic conferences, so perhaps that’s where I’ve gotten a little jaded. A lot of the feel at the industry stuff I’ve been to seems to encourage “spend 100% of the time attending things, just in case, then pick up a suitcase full of swag for the people back home.”

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                For academic conferences, few attend them exclusively to listen. Most people are there to give a talk or are in a group that did research work that will be presented in that conference (because travel costs are beyond your budget as a student, and your advisor is not going to give you money unless you are going to present your research). So, the emphasis is more on giving the presentation and making connections rather than simply listening to talks.

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        But as every passenger of a trans-ocean flight contributes about 1.8 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, it is fair to estimate that a participant in a conference contributes on the average one ton of CO2 to the atmosphere (also taking into account hotel and conference rooms air-conditioning and the like). The conference-publication system thus adds to the atmosphere annually tens of thousands of tons of CO2. As the reality of human-caused climate change is getting clearer by the day, the contribution of our profession to the approaching “climate apocalypse” cannot be ignored. My professional “badge of honor” is turning into a badge of shame, I am afraid.

        Let’s be realistic about this. How big an impact is this really? As a species we emit 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. According to a random google search this paper estimates that “…CO2 emissions associated with the trips required to present a paper at a scientific conference account for just 0.003% of the yearly total.”

        It’s absolutely ridiculous to claim that the environmental impact of research conferences is negative. The overwhelming likelihood is that the overall environmental impact of these conferences is actually positive, given that without research conferences there wouldn’t be any academic community to identity the existence of a climate change problem in the first place.

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          36 billion. Ok with some serious rounding that’s 5 tons per person per year. Cutting out roughly 1 ton per attendee seems like doing your part.

          Of course, individuals aren’t a major source of carbon, so perhaps doing your part also means running for office/contacting policy makers/protesting/voting with your dollar. But while perhaps massive impact is an overstatement, negative is still anything less than neutral.

          That last point is a false dichotomy. There are other, less emitting ways to have research communities. This discussion surrounds convincing the big publishers to lean into them.

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            It’s not 5 tons per person per year. It’s a negligible number of tons per person per year for the vast majority of the population and a ridiculously large number of tons per person per year for, say, Americans.

            Not only that, as you say, individuals play a very small role.

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          While reducing carbon emissions is a good thing, that rhetoric overlooks a tiny fact… you can only emit 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide if your institution is willing to pay your travel expenses, or you can afford it. Oh, and if the country of destination grants you a visa. For a lot of people in the world, neither of these is true.

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            I think this refers to the fact that many conferences require a presenter in order for a paper to be published. Maybe if you get a substitute presenter, then two papers are sharing that 1.8, but in general someone has to travel for the paper to be admitted. So I’d say it’s more than rhetoric.

            Visa issues in my experience lead to a lot of last-minute substitute presenters to ensure the papers are not removed from publication. This means truly awful presentation quality and no questions at worst or just no opportunity for questions at best.

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              Right. My point is when many people are simply barred from that publishing process by travel requirements, carbon emissions from those who can participate look like a rather minor issue.

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                Your original use of “overlook” gives the impression the limits on who can travel is a counter-argument to the carbon-production point of the OP. But it isn’t. The carbon is definitely sent into the atmosphere based on the number of attendees. Moreover, the argument that only some people can travel is a good point but one that basically further reinforces the point of the author, that there problems with conferences and not requiring physical travel might be a good thing.