Posted by: jonkatz | September 27, 2010

Our deadline-driven culture

The past several weeks I have been almost continually working toward one deadline or another, always getting things done within 24 hours (though in some cases, 24 minutes) of the deadline.

I think there is general agreement that the TCS culture is deadline driven, and I generally hear people say (even while complaining) that this is a good thing because it forces people to get things done that would otherwise be delayed indefinitely.

I disagree with this on two points.

  • First is the implicit assumption that “things will not get done” without some external deadline. I don’t think that’s true. Everyone has their own (soft) deadlines: students want to propose and graduate; professors want to get tenure and report results to the funding agencies at the end of the year. Moreover, it seems to me that when someone is interested in a result the paper gets written; it is mainly results that even the authors themselves are not excited about that drag on forever.
  • Second is the implication that it is a good to have some external motivation “forcing” papers to get written. Here is where I strongly disagree. The net effect of deadlines is that, overall, papers submitted to conference are half-baked and poorly written; in many cases both the authors and the reviewers (not to mention the eventual readers of the paper) would be better served if the authors were “allowed” a few more days to polish their work, or even a few more weeks to work out extensions or generalizations of their results. (Of course, one can hope that the authors continue to revise their paper after submission, but usually it is just on the the next deadline.)

Is there a solution to this? Let me first note that the physical sciences do not work the way we do: journals come out weekly, and one can submit a paper at any time once it is ready. (This is not to say there is no pressure to publish results quickly, only that there is not an arbitrary cut-off time for submission.) For better or worse, though, that model is not going to work for TCS.

One thing we could do, though I’m not sure how exactly it would play out, is to be more lenient when it comes to deadlines. For example, why couldn’t we allow authors to continue to revise their papers after the deadline (though with no guarantee that the reviewer will read anything but the originally submitted version)? Given that most reviews aren’t done until at least a month after the submission deadline, this seems like it wouldn’t be too difficult to implement. (And even if a reviewer read the original version of a paper, he might want to read [limited sections of] a revised version if aspects of the proof were clarified.) Seems to me this would help authors as well as reviewers.

Another idea that would seem to help (though it is not precisely related to the deadline issue discussed above) is to allow a paper to be considered for more than one conference; for example, a paper that was submitted to (say) TCC could be considered for (say) PKC if it were rejected from TCC. (Reviews could be forwarded so as to minimize the extra work on the second PC considering the paper.) This would be a huge benefit to authors, who now sometimes have to wait several months to have a paper published just because it got rejected from the first conference it was submitted to.

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Responses

  1. Why would the physical sciences model not work for TCS? Plenty of quantum computing papers (for example) are submitted to physics journals, and the model seems to work for them…

  2. I’m also curious why you think the journal model won’t work for TCS. It does seem to work for other areas of CS (like compbio).

  3. “why couldn’t we allow authors to continue to revise their papers after the deadline”

    Like the idea! In fact, something like that may be happening already. You can always post an updated version of a paper on ePrint after submitting to the conference. I don’t know about others, but if I am reviewing a submission and there is an updated ePrint version available, I will read the ePrint version.

  4. I take it back — the journal model could work for TCS, and maybe it would be a good idea. But it would require a major culture shift, whereas my suggestion seems more easy to deploy.

  5. 1) Having the committee look at revised versions on
    authors websites is fine (a) for conference that don’t do blind submissiosn, and (b) Any author who emails people on the committee saying `PRETTY PLEASE LOOK AT MY REVISED VERSION!!!!” will automatically get his paper rejected.

    2) Should the committee also look at powerpoint slides
    of the topic on the authors website?

    3) All of these `remedies’ don’t get to the heart of the problem
    which is, at Jon aptly put it, the deadline-driven culture.
    To quote Lance Fortnow- Its time for computer science to grow up. (See his article or blog on such).

  6. I like your last idea about simultaneous submissions to multiple conferences. If I am not mistaken(I have only a vague recollection) FOCS and some other conference allowed overlapping submissions a few years ago. Any idea on how that turned out ?

  7. Personally, I hate working to a deadline and it doesn’t work well for me. Usually I have my papers ready several weeks before the deadline (but may make some small tweaks in the last days before). On the other hand, I write many fewer papers than the average crypto person.

    I disagree with your second suggestion because, as you remark, I think there should be much more serious work done on papers *after* they are accepted (i.e., when preparing the final camera-ready version). I think it is disappointing that often there are useful suggestions made by referees which are not incorporated significantly into the published version. It shows that many researchers in this field really don’t care too much what their papers look like. They consider refereeing as a hurdle, rather than an opportunity to help improve their work.

    I usually end up spending serious time and making significant changes to my papers, after acceptance, for the camera-ready version.


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