OVER THE PAST decade I have penned several columns that were critical of the cur- rent computing-research publication system, with
its heavy reliance on conference publishing. These columns were widely
read, and the feedback I received was
generally quite positive, but they had
zero impact on how we go about publishing our research. Conferences still
provide the main vehicle for dissemination of curated computing research.
What did I miss?
I believe the main advantage that
conferences have over journals is that
of predictability. Conferences have
clear dates for submission, author
feedback, and notification. Journals,
in general, have none of these. Such
predictability is both a powerful motivating factor and a source of comfort.
In spite of their flaws, conference
publishing dominates because of the
predictability it provides.
Yet the dominance of conference
publication comes at a cost. As publishing one’s paper at a prestigious
conference has become the standard
way to build professional credentials,
expectations with respect to quality
have risen. Reviewers expect papers
to be of polished archival quality,
and often reject papers—even ones
that present innovative, interesting research—that fail to meet their
standards for such quality. Rejected
papers are then revised and submitted to another conference, but will
be judged by another set of reviewers, with somewhat differing expectations. Good papers can bounce from
conference to conference, imposing
a huge cost on the research community in terms of the reviewing effort.
Viewed from this perspective, the predictability of conference publishing
is rather illusory.
A simple remedy to this problem
is for conferences to adopt a standard element of journal publishing,
which is the revision. Some conferences have already adopted this practice and allow a submission cycle to
include two rounds of reviewing, to
enable authors to revise their papers.
This practice should be adopted by all
computing-research conferences, I
But the much bigger issue is that a
computing-research conference is “a
journal that meets in a hotel.” Every
paper accepted to a conference requires one or more authors to travel
up to halfway around the world in order to present the paper in an oral or
poster presentation. The conference
publication system is, therefore, a
major source of air travel. For example, over the past 20 years I have air
traveled more than two million miles.
I used to think of that as a professional status symbol.
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.
Of course, conferences are more
than a paper-publishing system. First
and foremost, they are vehicles for in-
formation sharing, community build-
ing, and networking. But these can be
decoupled from research publishing,
and other disciplines are able to achieve
them with much less travel, usually
with one major conference per year.
Can we reduce the carbon footprint of
While ACM has instituted the Carbon Offset Program,a I believe we need
to go further. I propose that ACM (and
other professional computing associations) establish a sweeping policy
change that would apply immediately
to all its conferences, requiring that
authors of accepted papers that must
fly to participate in a conference may
opt out from in-person involvement
and contribute instead by video. This
will not only reduce air travel but will
also broaden participation in computing-research conferences by enabling
authors with disabilities or with family constraints to partake as well. An author who elects to participate remotely
should pay a reduced registration fee to
cover conference expenses. Once we allow authors to attend conferences virtually, we should allow the same option to
other conference participants. We will
then be able to observe the value of in-person conference participation to our
community. My suspicion is that it is
much less valuable than we would like
I believe that ACM should take a
leadership role, as it did when ACM
Council adopted the Policy Against Harassment at ACM Activities, in recognizing the climate emergency we face
and in doing its share to reduce its environmental footprint.
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Moshe Y. Vardi ( email@example.com) is the Karen Ostrum
George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational
Engineering and Director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for
Information Technology at Rice University, Houston, TX, USA.
He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Communications.
Copyright held by author.
Publish and Perish
DOI: 10.1145/3373386 Moshe Y. Vardi