There was an interesting article in CACM discussing an idiosyncrasy of computer science I’ve never totally wrapped my head around. Namely, conferences are widely considered higher quality publication venues to journals. Citation statistics in the article bear this perception out. My bias towards journals reflects my background in electrical engineering. But I still find it curious, having now spent more time as an author and reviewer for both ACM conferences and journals.
I think that journals should contain higher quality work. In the general case, there is no deadline for submission, and less restrictive page limits. What this should mean is that authors submit their work when they feel it is ready, and they presumably can detail and validate it with greater completeness. Secondly, the review process is also usually more relaxed. When I review for conferences, I am dealing with several papers in batch mode. For journals, things are usually reviewed in isolation. When the conference PC meets, the standards become relative. The best N papers get in, regardless of whether the N-1 or N+1 best paper really deserved it, as N is often predetermined.
Is this a good thing? Is CS that different from (all?) other fields that value journals more? On the positive side, there’s immense value in getting work out faster (journals’ downside being their publication lag) and in directly engaging the research community in person. No journal can stand in front of an audience to plead its case to be read (with PowerPoint animations no less). And this may better adapt to a rapidly changing research landscape. On the other hand, we may be settling for less complete work. If conferences become the preferred publication venue, then the eight to ten page version could be the last word on some of the best research. Or it may be only a tendency towards quantity at the expense of quality. Long ago (i.e. when I was in grad school), a post-doc in the lab told me that if I produced one good paper a year, that I should be satisfied with my work. I’m not sure that would pass for productivity in CS research circles today.
And this dovetails with characterizations of the most selective conferences in the article and elsewhere. Many of the most selective conferences are perceived to prefer incremental advances to less conventional but potentially more innovative approaches. The analysis reveals that conferences with 10-15% acceptance rate have less impact than those with 15-20% rate. So if this is the model we will adopt, it still needs some hacking…