Monday, June 09, 2014

A declaration of independence (kind of), and technology-induced disintermediation

Musings on the SoCG move to declare independence of the ACM. 

It's a little odd to be sitting in Denmark while high quality rød pølse (with remoulade!) is being made across the world in Kyoto. There's an abysmal lack of blogging/tweeting/facebooking/instagramming/snapchatting/can-I-stop-now-ing from the conference.

Of course following in the lines of the complexity conference, we're attempting to declare our own independence from the EEVVIIL SKELETOR AND HIS MINIONS ACM. Jeff Erickson, our esteeemed grand poobah steering committee chair has put out a series of posts outlining the issues at hand, the history of the matter, and the current status of discussions with SIGACT and ACM. Please visit http://makingsocg.wordpress.com to read, discuss and/or heckle as you see fit.

It might be obvious, but this new wave of devolution is being driven largely by technology - most importantly the existence of LIPIcs. Having a platform for open-access publication with minimal costs exposes as false the claims of institutional providers that they alone can provide the support needed for conferences. In fact, there are a number of related claims that appear to be not true in practice (or at least are not as obviously true as once thought).

* We need the imprimatur of an institutional provider as a signalling mechanism for quality. While it might be too soon to tell if dropping affiliation with established institutions (IEEE or ACM) will affect how publications in a venue will be perceived, there's a lot of confidence in the communities that their long-established reputation will outweigh any loss of prestige.

* Institutional providers provide quality editorial and archival services necessary for a serious venue. I think juxtaposing 'quality' and 'editorial' together with Sheridan Printing might cause my two remaining readers to die of hysterical laughter. But the archival issue is a good one. LIPIcs appears to be funded solidly by the German government for a while, and will take a fixed fee from a conference for publication (capped at 750 €). But the Arxiv was struggling for a while. Should we view the ACM and IEEE as "more likely to last" than any other entity ?

* Institutional providers provide the backing and clout needed for conference organization, hotel bookings and so on. This is another good example of a time-money tradeoff. Organizations like SIAM actually do take over the management of the conference: while the results are not always optimal, there is a clear reduction in hassle for the conference organizers. But organizations like the ACM don't take things over in the same way (and from what I can tell, neither does IEEE). I'm surprised though that there aren't yet lean-and-mean event planning providers that we can just pay money to and make our planning problems go away.

* Institutional providers have the financial wherewithal to manage cycles in revenue streams for a conference. This is another real issue. Conferences that have gone independent have eventually managed to maintain a steady income stream, but theory conferencs are smaller and poorer: it remains to be seen whether we can generate the kind of endowment needed to insulate the community against the natural variation in revenue from year to year.

What's disappointing is that none of this had to play out this way.

  • Take LIPICs for example: they clearly marked out their scope -- indexing, archiving functions and hosting -- while staying away from the more content-driven aspects of the process (editing, proofing etc). This makes a lot of sense, given that everyone who publishes knows how to use LaTeX and style files, but might still not be able to make a web page. Why couldn't the ACM have realized this and provided a slimmed-down publishing service ? 
  • Why do we go to Microsoft (or Easychair, or hotCRP, or Shai Halevi's software) for our conference submission servers ? If the ACM had provided a service of this kind (or even provided hosting for hotCRP/Shai's software), we'd be happily using it right now, and it could have then tied nicely into Regonline, that ACM already partners with. 
  • A lot of the current angst seems to have tone as a root cause: a certain feeling about the provider's attitude towards the conference. This is again something that could have been recognized and addressed before things got to this stage. 
While it's exciting to be part of the "academic spring" (?), people tend to forget that in all revolutions someone gets hurt, and often things don't get better for a long time. I'm intrigued by our attempt to move towards independence though, and the people involved have thought this through very carefully. 


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