Monday, June 07, 2010

STOC 2010, and Some Business Meeting Notes

STOC 2010 appears to be running quite smoothly.  I've been popping in and out -- the problem with being a local is that I actually have to go home at reasonable times (and stop by the office quickly).  While nominally (thanks to Lance) I was appointed Conference Chair, my role, happily, was minimal.  Great thanks to the efforts of the Microsoft Local Arrangements Team -- particularly Paul Oka -- and also Yael Kalai, Adam Kalai, hosts Jennifer Chayes and Christian Borgs, and anyone else I'm forgetting.  (Personally, I'm now all for a Microsoft team managing local arrangements every few years... all in favor?)

Thanks to everyone who has offered condolences for my new position, and special thanks to those who said they'd hope my scientific career might revive a few years hence. 

A quick word on the business meeting.  I wasn't actually there, but I understand Lance briefly discussed "The Future of STOC."  Let me briefly give my take, as I understand there might have been some confusion.

1)  Several of us on the SIGACT executive committee have been concerned that STOC seems to be at best stable (and perhaps slightly deteriorating) in terms of attendance the last several years, even as our field is ostensibly growing.  Perhaps, we think, STOC/FOCS are not adequately fulfilling their roles as the central, flagship events of the theory community.  (Needless to say, given this year's attendance, perhaps things are brighter than we think.)
2)  So we think about it.  For example, some of you might recall my wacky Double One, Half the Other post from November. 
3)  Lance comes up with an even more drastic proposal, and tries to get some feedback on it from targeted members of the community.  I believe he tried to explain this proposal at the business meeting.  To be clear, the feedback before the meeting was largely very negative;  although many people think things could be structurally improved, there's a lot of different opinions as to what form that should take.  This proposal was never meant to be on the table at the business meeting.
4)  The one thing that DID seem to have reasonably widespread support is that we could accept more papers.  We still have some room if we made it a full 3-day schedule.  STOC acceptance rates have dropped from generally well over 30% in the 1990's and early 00's (some years it was over 40%!) to 25-30% the last few years.  While upping the number of papers is, admittedly, a small delta, and not likely to change some potentially larger systematic issues with the conference, it seems like a good idea -- it should get some more people to come, and perhaps will allow a bit more leeway in terms of what is accepted.  Moreover, if people liked the change, then perhaps we could think of further changes (a 3.5 or 4-day conference?  triple sessions like SODA?  your idea here?) that could further open up the conference.  

So the SIGACT EC came up with the proposal that we advise next year's chair that, as long as the paper quality warrants it, there's no reason to aim for about 75-80 papers (the apparent "target" of the last many years) and we would be happy if they might aim for 85-90 papers.

Again, I wasn't at the business meeting, but I heard even this modest proposal did not receive enthusiastic support.  I'm starting to get the feeling there's a non-trivial minority that thinks the conference is going just fine, and are in principle against any change.  I can certainly understand trepidation at radical change, but I can't see any reason not to try this modest experiment, which seems to have little to no downside and some reasonable possible upside.

So feel free to explain YOUR opinions in the comments.
     

31 comments:

Jeffe said...

STOC seems to be at best stable (and perhaps slightly deteriorating) in terms of attendance the last several years, even as our field is ostensibly growing.

Huh? Weren't the organizers talking about closing registration a few days ago, because the rooms were overflowing?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Jeff

The tutorial room was full -- technically, it was only set for 200 people.

Registration was indeed high this year -- about 350. Again, I think to the 1st order that's because we're in Cambridge, to the 2nd order that's because of some smart colocating. Certainly we should take both as lessons for the future, but it doesn't mean we couldn't do other things to improve the "centrality" of the conference.

Paul Beame said...

The 75-80 papers target stated here is a fiction. 75 papers is a LOWER BOUND on what it makes sense to do with 2-way parallel sessions. With 66 papers one can do single sessions so it ought to be a good amount over to make the extra loss due to parallel sessions worthwhile.

In a typical conference set-up with 2-way parallel sessions one can comfortably schedule 32 talks per day which means a 3 day conference comfortably can handle 96 papers assuming no plenary sessions for award papers and no invited talks. There may be specific logistical reasons to keep this a bit smaller.

Each hour-long invited talk subtracts 6 papers from the schedule. Each 20 minute plenary award talk removes an additional paper.

STOC 1999 had 86 papers even though there were breaks for a couple of invited talks because of FCRC.

STOC 2000 had 85 papers along with an hour-log invited talk.

Anonymous said...

How do the attendance figures for FOCS'09, SODA'10 and STOC'10 compare?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I don't know about the others, but last year's STOC (according to the TMRF) had 256 or so. So the gain was about 100 people this year.

Anonymous said...

I was at the business meeting. A vocal subgroup appears set on changing essentially nothing about STOC. But it makes sense that those people would attend the STOC business meeting, while others that think STOC has serious problems would not show up to the conference at all...

One proposed change might have had a consensus of agreement. It was to invite the authors of "best" papers from other conferences such as SODA, SOCG, CRYPTO, CCC, etc. to present their work in a special session of STOC. There was disagreement on how many STOC slots to allocate for this, but there did appear to be substantial support for the basic idea.

Anonymous said...

I was at the business meeting. A vocal subgroup appears set on changing essentially nothing about STOC. But it makes sense that those people would attend the STOC business meeting, while others that think STOC has serious problems would not show up to the conference at all...

But then those who are showing up should decide about the future, don't you think? It's the STOC community who should decide about the future of STOC, and by default, the way how the STOC community could exercise this is either by commenting on it on STOC business meeting, or through some other meetings (electronic discussions) organized by STOC or SIGACT EC.

Anonymous said...

This proposal was never meant to be on the table at the business meeting.

Then why was it presented? I got a feeling not a single person liked Lance's proposal.

There were a few other proposals from the audience, which might be worth following up, but not Lanse's proposal. I like the one of creating a new conference and to keep STOC as it is.

I also don't think that increasing the number of accepted papers by 20 would change much. One would have 5-10 more new names, and the others would be from the same group of frequent authors. This wouldn't reach much outside the existing community and wouldn't significantly increase the attendtance.

Another interesting proposal was to allow concurrent submissions to other conferences, like SoCG, CCC, or PODC, so that, say, best papers in geometry could be accepted on STOC as well as on SoCG. (Now almost all best papers in comp geometry go to SoCG.)

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I attend STOC this year. I'm mainly doing it because it's collocated with CCC. My current thoughts on it are mixed; it seems like I'm more comfortable with smaller conferences for two reasons:

1) Meeting people is easier for me. As I don't weight anything in this pool of heavy scientists, I'm a, say, epsilon. Still, in comparison, the less people are in the room, the bigger is my epsilon, and I'm feeling both more confident and capable in those situations.

2) When I go to a person saying "Hey, I'm working on automata and language theory!" they usually react with either "Oh, I've heard about that, but I don't remember what this 'pumping' thing was about" or "Meh.". I would expect people at CCC to both know and be interested in any automata related problem.

The upside is indeed the mixing of all the ideas. Still, I can't help but think that most sessions are small specialized conferences, addressed to a specific public.

For the time being, I think I'm not planning to come back to STOC, nor to try to publish there.

Mihai said...

Why do you think the people opposed to any change are a *minority*? Evidence seems to be to the contrary.

From talking to the people at the conference, I think the situation is quite clear. The community somehow elected a SIGACT chair with radical ideas ("we should change our publication model to journals being the primary target"), then figured out that this was a terrible idea, and switched to "stop these guys from doing anything!" mode.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Hey Mihai. Funnily enough, I also talked to people -- and saw the feedback from the many people who Lance talked to about his idea. And from them it was clear that many people thought SOME change was good, they just couldn't agree on what it was. So, in short, I disagree with your assessment of the evidence. Yes, Lance's proposal appears too radical to be accepted, we agree. Now can we talk about what I actually blogged about -- what do you think of upping the papers count by say 10, bringing our acceptance rate closer to the historical standards of roughly 1990-2005? Would that really be so terrible?

Anonymous said...

Michael, about your proposal, Ravi Kannan said the same thing at the business meeting, that increasing the number of accepted papers somewhat is a good idea, but accepting all submissions is a terrible one. I agree completely. And I think most people in the audience did. I saw several heads nodding.

Anonymous said...

what do you think of upping the papers count by say 10

What would thta change? We would have 10 more participants, perhaps 15, but just increasing the number by 10 wouldn't change much.

I'm quite happy with the current format, but if you want to have changes then just adding 10 new papers wouldn't change anything.

However, adding 10 papers coming from other communities (CRYPTO, SPAA, SoCG) perhaps would lead to some changes. But this would have to be arranged in some special way.

And if you want to increae participation, make sure that some PC members are coming from Europe and Asia. FOCS'10 has 1 PC from Europe and 1 from Asia. STOC had 0 from Europe and 2 from Asia.

Anonymous said...

Michael, about your proposal, Ravi Kannan said the same thing at the business meeting, that increasing the number of accepted papers somewhat is a good idea, but accepting all submissions is a terrible one. I agree completely.

I do agree that accepting all submissions to any conference is a terrible idea. However, as soon as _anyone_ brings up the issue of accepting more papers at FOCS/STOC, even if it is by as little as 5-10 papers, immediately, someone counters by saying that accepting all submissions is bad!

Folks, we are talking about accepting very very far from all submissions; many many more than 5-10 submissions get rejected from STOC each year! So please get that out of your mind. Accepting 10 more papers is a very incremental change, you won't even notice the difference!

Anonymous said...

Many participants were complaining high registration fee and high hotel prices in STOC now. However, do you think that expensive Cambridge is less attractive than cheap Vegas?

Perhaps to get high participation we have to have the conference in Boston area, or NY, or San Francisco, because only these locations will bring lots of students and local participants. I don't expect to see 150 students coming to Vegas.

Mihai said...

I think what people tell me is quite different from what they tell you :) [Self-selection based on what they're assuming about us from the blogs.]

My response to Lance's suggestion (in the email discussion before STOC) was precisely that we should accept some 25% more papers.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Mihai -- Well, I can't argue with that. :)

Anon: I agree accepting 10 or so more papers is an incremental change. I'd like to see more. (Mihai's +25% suggestion is more my speed!) But it's clear there's resistance to change in the community, so small, gradual, reversible-if-disliked change seems the way to go. The delta will be small, but I expect it to be positive, which might help lead to further change down the line -- and it seems clear it won't cause any major catastrophe, which seems to be a concern.

Suresh said...

I'm not in favor of increasing acceptance rates, not because I think it isn't a good idea, but because I think it will do nothing to make a drastic change in attendance in order to get STOC to the status of 'conference everyone attends'.

My personal preference has always been for more of other non-paper activities (tutorials/workshops/panels/etc). It sounds like colocation with carefully chosen conferences (i.e not FCRC style) is also a good idea. Frankly, I wonder if SoCG registration is down partly because of STOC/CCC/EC fatigue among the group of people who go to both STOC and SoCG.

Anonymous said...

STOC had 0 PC from Europe and 2 from Asia.

Actually, STOC had 5 committee members from Asia.

Anonymous said...

Michael, it is interesting to note that the attendance is not changing/decreasing in a tier-1 TOC conference. Do you have information on attendance in systems conferences, for example, sigcomm, over the last 5 years?

Anonymous said...

5 or 2 from Asia, depending on whether you count Israel in Asia or North America.

Eli Ben-Sasson said...

I haven't attended the business meeting so don't know the details of Lance's proposal but I'm enthusiastically in support of significantly increasing the number of accepted papers, for the following reasons:

1. A conference is not a prize ceremony: STOC (and FOCS) has turned into one big prize ceremony. The prize is having an accepted paper. This leads to (1) a feeling of estrangement - if I don't have a paper there I don't feel like I belong there, (2) warping research - we all love prizes so now research is about STOCable papers, as many of them as possible.

2. If enough of us like it, it should be accepted: If there is a consensus in a program committee that a paper is of interest to our community, it shouldn't be rejected just because other papers are "more interesting" or deemed "better". (Have no doubt, papers are routinely rejected for exactly this reason.) If we don't impose an artificial 75 paper limit in the first place, we can really get in all the papers that we - the community at large - find interesting.

3. Few paper -> few attendees: The low attendance in STOC/FOCS is partly due to the small number of papers, which implies (1) small number of presenters, (2) small impact: out of the ~70 papers in the conference, only around 5 really matter to my current research.

A conference should be what it name suggest: A venue for people to confer, to meet, to exchange ideas, to sit leisurely and discuss research. It should strive to be a meeting attended by a large fraction of our active research community and should run for a prolonged period of time during which we'll have time to both hear interesting results and sit down and chat.

While we're at it, here's an even more radical idea: Why 2 major conferences (STOC/FOCS)? There should be one major annual theory conference as is the case in many other scientific fields. And this conference should include all good research done in the previous year, i.e., anything that enough of us would like to hear. The conference itself should be longer so that people will have time to both listen to talks and to interact, as opposed to showing up, delivering your talk and flying off.

Anonymous said...

The quality of the average paper in STOC and FOCS is not that high. The quality of the average talk is worse. (This is not to say that there weren't some very good talks and excellent papers this year!) I don't think opening the conference to more papers would hurt the quality significantly.

I think a poster session should be added. This gives many benefits:
1. It attracts more theory graduate students, who have something to show off and will leave feeling good about that. (There are too many bitter grad students, who seem to be complaining about "cliques" at STOC/FOCS.)
2. It attracts more people from the margins of the field, who don't have STOC-style papers, but are curious about the field and also want to share their work.
3. It naturally encourages networking, as people gather around interesting posters. It is easier to explain your work in front of a poster than bent over a scrap of paper. I think there are different kinds of networking, and poster sessions encourage serendipity and problem discovery.
4. If papers can be submitted as talk/poster, then a poster session will boost the submission rate by bringing in more marginal papers, and hence lower the acceptance rate. This will impress our friends in other areas of CS.

Anonymous said...

Regarding attendance, I suggest we hold the conference in Cambridge every year, that MM be the perpetual conference chair, and that MS manage local arrangements. :)

Warren said...

The comments seem to imply that Lance's suggestion was changing STOC to accept all submitted papers. Is that correct? (I wasn't at the business meeting.)

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Some anonymous asked about SIGCOMM attendance over the years. I'm trying to get the numbers; there are some at Kevin Almeroth's conference statistics page, easily found online. The data is sparse, but it appears SIGCOMM had about 400 attendees in 1995 and 2000, and over 600 in 2008. That suggests growth to me. A conference where there's more data, IPDPS, shows a similar trend, from 400's to 500's/low 600's over roughly the same period. That seems different from theory -- except, apparently, when STOC is in Cambridge with CCC and EC. (Let's capitalize on these gains.)

Interestingly, WWW appears to have crashed since, well, the crash, though the drop is from 2000 or so to 1000....

Anonymous said...

Certainly we should accept more papers into STOC/FOCS. The point is simple: if they are supposed to be the major venue for presenting or publishing research in the theory of cs, then they play the same role as that of a reputable journal in, say, mathematics. Thus, currently, the number of tcs papers each year "that counts" are about 140. This is too low.

Other reasons, is of course those the Eli presented.

Anonymous said...

"Certainly we should accept more papers into STOC/FOCS. The point is simple: if they are supposed to be the major venue for presenting or publishing research in the theory of cs, then they play the same role as that of a reputable journal in, say, mathematics. Thus, currently, the number of tcs papers each year "that counts" are about 140. This is too low. "

I agree that more papers should be accepted to STOC/FOCS, but can people just stop, I mean STOP, comparing STOC/FOCS papers to "prestigious journals"? They are NOT journal articles!

Recently, I was refereeing a (STOC/FOCS) paper for the most prestigious journal in CS. It claimed a big result and likely the authors had already received "credit" for the result b/c of the STOC/FOCS pedigree/prize status. However, the paper was such an incomprehensible mess, I was actually shocked that it had been accepted to the conference. It would be okay for it to be a conference paper, as long as it is well recognized that this was a PRELIMINARY version. It was in no way, shape or form a journal version.

Piotr Indyk said...

Hi,

I also support the poster session idea. They broaden the participation and the topic list, without increasing the length of the conference. My personal experience with such sessions (at vision and machine learning conferences) has been very positive.

Anonymous said...

"If they are supposed to be the major venue for presenting or publishing research in the theory of cs, then they play the same role as that of a reputable journal in, say, mathematics. Thus, currently, the number of tcs papers each year "that counts" are about 140. This is too low."

They are a major venue, but not the major venue. The field is not growing, so why should the conference? Adding a poster session would be less disruptive.

Anonymous said...

The field is not growing, so why should the conference?

The field has increased by several orders of magnitude (in binary) since STOC and FOCS last increased in size.