• August 2009
    M T W T F S S

Time for Computer Science to Grow Up

Communications of the ACM (Vol. 52 No. 8), August 1

Engineering and computer science professor Lance Fortnow argues that the computer science field, now more than 50 years old, needs to adapt to a conference and journal model that has worked well for every other academic field. Fortnow argues that the current conference system forces researchers to focus too heavily on quick, technical and safe papers instead of considering broader and newer ideas. Meanwhile, academics devote too much time and money to conferences where they can present papers, leaving them less time to attend events where they can socialize with colleagues. Fortnow first highlights the reasons why conferences have become more prestigious than journals as a way to disseminate computing research results and then explains why the current system is no longer appropriate for the demands of the computer science discipline. In the final analysis, academic journals should be the place to rate papers and researchers, while conferences should act as a broad forum to bring the computer science community together.

After reviewing how the conference and journal model for computer science came into being, Fortnow describes why it has led to a splintering of the computer science community. Because of limitations of money and time, very few conferences draw many attendees beyond the authors of accepted papers. Conferences now serve the journal role of other fields, leaving nothing to serve the proper role of conferences. Moreover, having different publication procedures discourages proper collaboration between researchers in computer science and other fields. The final result is a situation in which too many papers chase too few conference slots. To maintain their quality reputations, conference program committees have become biased toward safe papers (incremental and technical) versus those that explore new models and research directions outside the established core areas of the conference.

So how do we move a field with a long tradition of conference publications to a more journal-based system? Fortnow suggests that computer science needs organizations like ACM and the CRA to help break the inertia in the system and support the growth of a strong journal publication system. While conferences were preferable to print publications for several reasons during the 1990s, the growth in computer science and advances in Web technology has changed everything. For example, quick dissemination via the Web makes time to print less relevant. In the opinion of Fortnow, leaders and sponsors of major conferences must make the first move, holding their conferences less frequently and de-emphasizing their publication role in favor of more community interaction.

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