I have a couple of posts on the back burner, waiting for clearance from my internal censor. But rather than rush those out, I think it’s important to address the most important argument for staying with ACM.
I believe—and I think the computational geometry community believes—that the computational geometry community can comfortably run our flagship annual conference without ACM. We have a standing offer from LIPIcs to publish our proceedings, at considerably lower cost and 100% open-access. While there may be some concern in the short run about financial backing, we can easily draw on the experience of other events with overlapping scope and similar scale—like EuroCG, CCCG, ESA, STACS, SWAT, WADS, and Graph Drawing—which have operated for decades without a sponsoring organization, and in many cases without even a persistent bank account. In terms of the raw logistics of running a conference and publishing the proceedings, association with ACM is simply unnecessary.
But our current arrangement with ACM does have one significant advantage: brand recognition.
Hiring committees, tenure and promotions committees, funding panels, and even university accreditors base decisions in part on the reputations of the venues in which researchers publish. To first approximation, papers in “good” conferences (like STOC) and journals (like J. ACM) “count”, and papers in other venues (insert your own examples) don’t “count”, regardless of the quality of the actual work.
In the absence of expert opinion (or actual experts), evaluators turn to various kinds of secondary evidence to decide whether a conference is “good”:
- Publication by a recognized professional society (like ACM, IEEE, or SIAM).
- Inclusion in publication indices (like SCOPUS, Web of Science, the ACM Digital Library, and DBLP).
- Conference rankings, such as the biennial Australasian rankings, the rankings automagically generated by Microsoft Academic Search and Google Scholar from harvested citation data, and various questionable anonymous rankings.
Let’s consider these one by one.
The sponsorship argument seems the easiest to knock down.
First, many highly prestigious computer science conferences are not associated with ACM (or IEEE or SIAM, the other two big players in theoretical computer science). There are smaller professional societies like USENIX for systems and security, or ACL for computational linguistics, who publish open-access proceedings. A more inspiring example is machine learning, where several major conferences—including ICML, AISTATS, and COLT—publish open-access proceedings through JMLR, which (as a publisher) is really just a few guys with a web page.
Second, any real prestige attached to society-backed proceedings flows from authors to conferences and from conferences to their sponsoring societies, not the other way around. ACM plays absolutely no role in the selection of papers at SOCG. Although its official policies suggest otherwise, the SOCG community neither seeks nor expects SIGACT’s or SIGGRAPH’s approval in electing our steering committee, or in the steering committee’s selection of PC chairs, or in the PC chairs’ selection of program committee members. (In principle, the SIGs could refuse to sponsor the conference because they don’t like the committees, but I don’t think anyone has ever seriously considered that option.) As far as the SOCG technical program is concerned, ACM enters the picture only after all acceptance decisions have been made, and then only in its role as our publisher. The flow of prestige from author to venue to publisher is precisely the reason JMLR is so successful, and (I suspect) one of the main reasons SIGACT and SIGGRAPH are working hard to keep SOCG.
ACM does deserve credit for avoiding the worst failings of other professional publishers, like publishing fake journals and computer-generated garbage. But as I’ve said elsewhere, “better than IEEE” is a pretty low bar. The unprofessional behavior of other professional societies undercuts any claim that society sponsorship is a priori a mark of quality.
My OCD compels me to make one final observation: SOCG stands for “the [nth] Annual Symposium on Computational Geometry”. The acronym “ACM” does not appear in the name of the conference or in the title of its proceedings.
However, regardless of whether professional society sponsorship should be a requirement for being considered a “real” conference, it is in fact a requirement at some institutions. In particular, the bid for SOCG 2014 to be held in Kyoto required association with ACM; without the professional society backing, the host universities would not have been willing to sponsor the conference.
Christian Duncan tells me that the Graph Drawing community has been considering whether to move their proceedings away from Springer’s venerable Lecture Notes in Computer Science to the open-access Leibniz International Proceedings in Informatics (LIPIcs) series, as both STACS and FSTTCS did in 2008.
The biggest concern we are getting from some researchers is that LIPIcs is not “indexed” in Scopus (or a similar database). Apparently, in some countries like Italy, the evaluation of their scholarly work, which affects their grant funding, promotions, and raises, is based on having their work published in journals and proceedings that are indexed by Scopus or Web of Science.
But in fact, the LIPIcs proceedings for STACS and FSTTCS are indexed in SCOPUS (with the exception of FSTTCS 2013, which was about six months ago). There is every reason to believe that the-conference-formerly-known-as-SOCG (and, for that matter, Graph Drawing) would also be indexed.
LIPIcs claims that they also submit their proceedings for indexing in Thomson-Reuters’ Conference Proceedings Citation Index, but either their Web of Science interface is too utterly broken for me to figure out how to access that index (which says something about how useful it is) or my university doesn’t subscribe to it (which says something about how important it is). Searching for a few key people reveals that Web of Science indexes only four years of SOCG proceedings, from 2008 to 2011. So they’re irrelevant.
All LIPIcs proceedings are also indexed on DBLP, along with every other series produced by Dagstuhl. And of course they’re also indexed by Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search, like every other web page on the planet.
It is hard to imagine that ACM would agree to include the-conference-formerly-known-as-SOCG in its Digital Library if we vote to go independent, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, ACM bills its Digital Library as “The ACM Guide to Computing Literature”. If it wants to live up to this motto, the Digital Library must index high-quality proceedings (and journals) no matter who publishes them. Otherwise, it will continue to be “The ACM Guide to ACM’s Computing Literature” and people will continue to rely on other indices for complete records.
Perhaps most importantly, because ACM has declined to offer us the same courtesy as it offered COLT and ICML when they became independent, an independent computational geometry conference would need a different name. That new name necessarily will not appear in any existing conference ranking, and it would require a few years to build up enough evidence (typically in the form of citations) to be included in any new rankings. In the short run, changing the name of the conference—even if we stay with ACM—would negatively impact the conference’s visibility and reputation.
(“Even if we stay with ACM” is not just irrelevant speculation. Herbert Edelsbrunner has been advocating appending “…and Topology” to the conference name for years.)
But again, I believe this would be a short-term effect. The computational geometry community is thriving. As long as we maintain our current level of quality and impact, an independent computational geometry conference will eventually regain the stellar reputation and high rankings that SOCG now enjoys.
Of course, I might be wrong. Maybe the computational geometry community doesn’t have the research momentum to regain the brand recognition of our flagship conference across a name change. But in that case, we have a much more serious problem than our frustration with ACM!
So now what?
To sum up, moving SOCG away from ACM and changing its name would have some painful side effects. Some researchers would have a significant incentive not to submit to the independent conference—because a paper at SOCG++ wouldn’t “count” toward their students’ job searches, or their tenure case, or their department’s allocation of faculty slots—which would be a loss both for those researchers and for the community.
Speaking only for myself, I believe these side effects would be temporary, that the computational geometry community is strong enough to rebuild any lost reputation, and that independence would improve the health and stature of the community in the long run. But inevitably, the side effects would be more painful and long-lasting in some departments than others. This is not a decision to be taken lightly.