Matt Welsh's recent amusing-but-also-sad post on having two recent conference submissions rejected for violating format requirements reminded me how much I hate wasting time dealing with formatting. Matt calls for a standardized template -- as he writes:
But isn't it time that we define a single standard for conference paper formatting that everyone uses?
(With such a system, conferences could still vary the length of the paper they accepted -- but the style file would be the same.)
I think that would be a great step. In the same spirit, I'd also like to see less focus on page limits -- both for submissions and for the final version. (Ostensibly, the final version should be closely related to the actual submission -- so if you're going to relax page limits for the final version, it seems best to do so for the submission version as well.) I think the recent change for SODA -- allowing up to 20 page conference papers -- is a great idea.
I understand that, in some cases (where printing is involved), some sort of page limit may be needed -- although with less and less printing of full proceedings, it's less clear that this is an important consideration. I also believe that page limits can force people to improve their writing -- bad writing and excessively wordy writing generally go together. (If we remove page limits, we'll have to tell people in reviews more frequently when they need to cut things down or even out in their papers.)
But the effort spent on meeting arbitrary page limits -- just the time spent on formatting -- seems silly at this point. And often it forces you to cut content. I can't count the number of times I've had a review say, "You should have included this...", where my response would be, "We did include this, but had to cut it to make it fit into the page limit..." (Yes, you can create multiple versions, and post the full versions online -- except for double-blind conferences, like SIGCOMM, of course -- but that involves yet further overhead, when you have to update to deal with reviewer comments, and...) And if your paper is rejected from one conference, to submit to another, you have to re-format and create another version to meet their arbitrary format and page limit standards.
In some ways, I'm glad that Matt is out there, talking about the papers being rejected for formatting. And I hope it starts happening to more people, more often. Because I worry that the only way for change to happen is for bad things to start happening to good papers so that people will start to realize that the current system is just bizarre and broken, and a revolution needs to occur. Perhaps I'm wrong, and slow evolutionary change -- with 20 page papers a SODA being an example -- will lead us the right way. If so, I encourage PC chairs to experiment with flexibility in their formatting requirements.