Thursday, June 04, 2009

The ICS conference -- what should it be?

I'm a bit surprised by the lack of discussion on the announcement of the new ICS conference. (That's "Innovations in Computer Science", a new theory conference -- with a rapidly approaching deadline.) Perhaps that's because none of the organizers themselves are bloggers -- let me extend an open invitation to any of them to guest post here to discuss the conference. I also think in some part that's because there's confusion as to what ICS is supposed to or will be. Indeed, when talking about it to people at STOC, more than one person suggested to me that probably the organizers themselves didn't know what sort of papers they'd get, and that it would take a couple of years for the conference to find itself.

On the other hand, my previous post on ICS suggests some discussion would be helpful. Take the response of one anonymous commenter.

'It is clear from various discussions that many people in the community feel that FOCS/STOC has deviated from their original goals, and no longer serve the interests of the discipline as a whole. These conferences serve more as some sort of "proving ground" for graduates students and young reserachers and these people seem to be constitute the main attendees to these conferences these days. Hopefully, ICS will become a venue where more serious thinkers can present their work, without becoming contaminated by the career-related competitive issues that have ruined the STOC/FOCS conferences.'

Now, I have not been regularly attending STOC/FOCS of late, as my interests have shifted more to applications, and my more theoretical work is generally a better fit for SODA. But having just spent several days through the entire conference, I just don't get this comment.

It's natural for up-and-coming graduate students to aim for the top conferences, and it's the sign of a healthy community that they can get papers in. (Indeed, often they produce the best work!) While the competitive nature is unfortunate, basic supply/demand of top jobs explains it, and in my experience it's common across CS subfields. Is this really keeping out good work? I don't see it.

My take on this comment was that there are still people frustrated with the issue of "conceptual papers" being rejected from FOCS/STOC, which seem to be the commenter's view -- that ICS could become a forum for these works . My take is that the community has heard the complaint and taken it into consideration. FOCS/STOC seems to be happy to accept good conceptual papers. A HotTheory conference, which takes work too preliminary for FOCS/STOC but with clear potential, could be worthwhile in my mind; but somehow I don't see a conference for papers rejected (or that would be rejected) from FOCS/STOC because the supposedly unwise committee couldn't understand the conceptual contribution as being what the community needs. I personally hope ICS becomes the former rather than the latter.

But that's just my view. The broader point is, while the organizers will try to make the conference the best it can be, as a community, shouldn't we try to discuss it more? Perhaps not here on this blog, but in general?

In a related vein, please see the thread below, which I've opened for more general comments and feedback on this year's STOC.

17 comments:

Warren said...

FOCS/STOC seems to be happy to accept good conceptual papers.

My impression is that STOC 2009 had a lower density of incomprehensible talks than normal. This may indicate that the community is shifting a bit towards recognizing conceptual and simple contributions. On the other hand it might just indicate that I know more CS than I used to!

11011110 said...

There was a brief discussion here.

Suresh said...

Michael,
I think there's no discussion because there's little information. The question I posted on Jeff's blog was: "can we get a sense of what kinds of papers would be considered worthy of ICS ? Kleinberg's HITS paper ? any other example?" .

I'm just confused, as are many others. I'm sure everyone will attempt to submit something, and will read the tea leaves from the accepted paper list in order to figure out what ICS is really about, but that doesn't leave room for much discussion, does it ?

Anonymous said...

"Kleinberg's HITS paper ? any other example?"

Kleinberg's paper has 4099 citations on google scholar. In fact, I don't know of any other paper in a TCS journal/conference in the past twenty years that has that many citations. So how is that an illustrative "example of what should be submitted"? It highly unlikely that such a paper will be submitted anywhere in the next decade.

Please be reasonable.

Anonymous said...

was kleinberg's paper rejected from stoc/focs? maybe that is why it is used as an example.

Suresh said...

The point I'm making is that AT THE TIME, the HITS paper was viewed as creative, but definitely not as revolutionary as it's become. But it was a new way of thinking about ranking schemes, and hence the 'conceptual novelty'

Anonymous said...


It's natural for up-and-coming graduate students to aim for the top conferences, and it's the sign of a healthy community that they can get papers in. (Indeed, often they produce the best work!)


It is unrealistic to expect (as a field matures) that the graduate students will continue to write papers that advance the field. In other more mature disciplines (such as physics, mathematics) the role of graduate students is substantially different. In those fields, graduate students are expected to concentrate more on their education and write a well-researched focussed dissertation, instead of spending their time writing a smattering of FOCS/STOC papers with little long term impact as is the case of many TCS graduates. The dissertation itself should be considered the single most important publication till date of a graduating student -- this sentiment seems not to be prevalent in TCS where many students just stitch their FOCS/STOC papers together and call it a thesis.

By the same token, senior researchers should have a venue to present conceptual papers with possible long term impact, without having to deal with the "graduate student publication craze" which is apparent in FOCS/STOC nowadays.

Also, the ratio between the number of senior Professors and grad students/postdocs in recent FOCS/STOC is almost 1-1 or even lower. This alone points to deeper structural problems in the community which needs to be addressed soon.

Anonymous said...

I personally don't quite see the point of having a small conference that most people in the community cannot attend for geographical reasons, and trying to make it a venue for important conceptual contributions. Why not co-locate such an event with FOCS/STOC/SODA, so more people can benefit from these talks?
On the other hand, if we believed that the talks themselves are not that important, and the community will benefit from the papers, then why not make it a journal instead of a conference? That way at least these papers get more decent reviews.

I also think with the effort that the community puts into a new conference, one could have a fast-turnaround journal instead, which can be much more valuable.

Anonymous said...

The main goal of this conference is apparently to create a prestigious conference based in China. I don't think that it is meant to address any of the problems that people are mentioning, and claiming this is just projecting.

"It is unrealistic to expect (as a field matures) that the graduate students will continue to write papers that advance the field."

This makes no sense to me at all. Graduate students are writing papers that advance the field! Are you saying that we need to stop them?!

Aaron Sterling said...

senior researchers should have a venue to present conceptual papers with possible long term impact, without having to deal with the "graduate student publication craze" which is apparent in FOCS/STOC nowadays.

I'm a graduate student, with no FOCS or STOC publications, and I feel tremendous financial pressure to publish. I don't think the "craze" you describe is limited to those two venues... and I don't think it's something done by "crazed" people. I attend a public university, and my financial support is limited, and has recently been reduced, along with other grad students in the department, because of state budget shortfalls.

So I feel sandwiched. I want to be "done" as soon as possible, but I want a CV that makes me competitive for a job I'd like. Also, not least, I want to make an impact on science that I can be proud of. That means I need to produce papers that are scientifically significant, and appealing to program committees. (Also, in my case, the things I think about are a bit off-the-wall, so I may have added pressure to convince a PC that what I submit is "in scope.")

The bottom line for me is this: having more respected venues for theory papers is a good thing, period, the end. I have no idea whether conceptual papers by senior researchers cannot compete against incremental papers by graduate students at STOC/FOCS. This seems to be the point of the quote I italicized. But the issue seems to be structural, not one of "PC members who lack vision." As long as hiring committees prioritize how many publications you have on your CV, grad students will try their best to publish like crazy.

Anonymous said...

Some conferences have been instant hits in attracting strong groups of researchers immediately -- SODA, RANDOM/APPROX, and EC come to mind -- and go on to be mainstays. Others have remained tertiary and niche conferences. Since ICS starts out so well funded and with a strong backing group it has a good chance to be a fast starter. To be really successful, though, it has to attract a wide range of strong researchers even when they don't have papers there.

The comparison with HotOS, etc. is not so odd. I can think of many of the more "conceptual" papers that didn't get into STOC/FOCS/SODA because they were sloppy and their writing just sucked. The papers introduced new definitions but didn't particularly get them right - they were a bit half-baked. The STOC/FOCS PCs said "resubmit to the next conference when you've fixed this" but the authors often did not. Would ICS accept such papers on the first go round?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Suresh says there's "little information" -- I totally agree there's far too little information. I've "nudged" a few people on the steering committee to provide more; perhaps if enough people do so, they'll add more information. Although perhaps we can also nudge them toward a certain direction by talking with them about what we'd like it to be.

Anon #7 says: "By the same token, senior researchers should have a venue to present conceptual papers with possible long term impact..."
This sounds so condescending and ill-conceived. Why would only senior researchers have conceptual papers? (Les Valiant's seminal example of PAC learning was when he was rather young, albeit already a leading figure. Same with Jon Kleinberg's HITS result...) What good does their get-together do if their papers aren't widely discussed/accessible? Isn't theory CS already perceived as painfully unfriendly (see comments on the post at Lance's blog on STOC) and won't this make it worse? In short, I disagree.

Anon #9 says: "The main goal of this conference is apparently to create a prestigious conference based in China. I don't think that it is meant to address any of the problems that people are mentioning, and claiming this is just projecting."
That's an interesting take, and arguably a worthwhile ago. I don't think anyone is projecting at all, however, given the title and the statements in the call.

Anonymous said...

@Aaron

Who told you publications work ?
Even if they are at top venues ?

School and/or adviser name is all that matters!!!.....if you don't have either due to financial compulsions (can happen but most folks don't understand the human side of science) quit!!!. Nowadays flipping burgers seems to be a better option.......anyways it is hard to differentiate between that and networking research :), TCS maybe different. (Personal bias perhaps have greater admiration for the TCS folks)

Aaron Sterling said...

School and/or adviser name is all that matters!!!

Perhaps it was foolish of me, but I didn't consider the name of the school at all, nor the name recognition of my adviser. There was a particular person I wanted to be with, because of his body of work. Basically, I wrote him and he said, "Come on over." I suppose I'll find out if I made a poor decision.

I do have two TCS friends graduating this year, from a not-big-name school. One has a single-author STOC paper, and the other has a multi-author FOCS paper. They both wanted academic jobs in the US, but no dice. However, one has a solid industry job now, and the other has a choice of academic jobs in another country. So they are both going to be fine. I am not saying the economy is not bad; it is. But it seems to me that quality publications do count for something.

Also, I must admit that the anger and frustration in all the blog comments about the unapproachability of top TCS people is completely alien to my own experience. STOC-paper-guy, who I mentioned above, excitedly told me how nice people were at the conference, and how one of the biggest names in the field came up to him to compliment him on his work. Personally, I've found that when I've asked questions -- in person or in writing -- of "famous names," that they've been helpful, thorough and modest.

Nowadays flipping burgers seems to be a better option.......anyways it is hard to differentiate between that and networking research :)

I'm not a CS expert, and I'm not a career counselor, but this seems more relevant to me than either institution name or adviser recognition. If your view of your work is that you are playing a "publications game" -- instead of doing your best to advance the future of science -- then you might consider adopting a more courageous research program. The way I see things, even if there are no jobs at all when I graduate, at least I will be happy with what I have accomplished.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

@Aaron -- don't take that negative anonymous too seriously. I think I've attracted a bitter networking person (or two) who likes to complain about "prestige" conferences. Still, your rebuttal was well-worded and worth having regardless!

My experience, also, is that at hiring time, "quality" will outweigh both "quantity" and "location". Do you have a well-known, important, scientific accomplishment that can be described to other computer scientists (and better yet not just to others in your narrow area)? You'll get a job. Do you have a half-dozen FOCS/STOC/SODA papers where nobody can readily explain their significance other than it somewhat improved over the last paper on the topic? It may be harder to get a job than you might expect.

Anonymous said...

@Aaron and Micheal:

I am certainly bitter about the networking community. Followed micheal's work in networking, information theory and coding, and hence am at the blog. Ofcourse I love his work and blog, so most what I said wouldnt apply to him :). Aron's previous comment brought out a spontaneous reaction, which perhaps should have been a bit measured.
I apologize.

Anonymous said...

Oded Goldreich has an ICS motivation statement up here: http://www.wisdom.weizmann.ac.il/~oded/ics.html