At TCC last week, Dov Gordon gave a rump session talk about…why he hates rump sessions. I wasn’t there, but I asked him what he said and thought the issues he raised were worth discussing. Below is some text Dov sent me (edited slightly for form, but not for content), followed by my reaction.
My intent was to make two points: the first is a serious ideological point that I now feel I should have emphasized more forcefully. The fast pace of progress in our community creates a great pressure to publicize our results as quickly as possible. The rump session provides an excellent means for creating a “time-stamp”. Unfortunately, there is also a temptation to use the rump session for announcing results where there is not even a manuscript to distribute, and this sort of “flag planting” has very negative consequences. From an ideological perspective, we cannot claim to have solved a problem before providing the public a chance to verify the proof; such behavior goes against the core principals of scientific investigation, regardless of the author’s own level of confidence or credibility. From a social perspective, if no manuscript is available, the speaker can claim huge amounts of territory with their flag, scaring others from pursuing a direction of research that may yet be unsolved! While we pretend that the rump session is increasing communication and collaboration, flag-planting is often used to the opposite effect by scaring off the pursuit.
My second complaint about rump sessions is far less serious and is more a matter of taste. While I won’t go so far as to say that the rump session is a waste of two hours, I’m usually too drained at that hour to get the most out of the talks, and more broadly I think there are better uses of that time. Most of what appears in the rump session will be on ePrint soon enough, and it is likely to appear in a conference shortly after that. How much is really gained from this jump-start? On the other hand, our conferences are already over-loaded, and it is very difficult to have all the one-on-one conversations we would like to have. This is especially true at TCC where there are so many people to talk to, it is a bit harder to find sessions to skip, and there is no social event. I would much rather we all spent the time talking shop or socializing. Finally, the rump session is supposed to be *fun*, and while some people make the effort to keep it that way, by and large I just find the self-promotion to be boring; in a 20 minute talk we try to teach, but in a 5 minute talk we try to sell. Who in this modern day would *choose* to watch the commercials?
While the response has been mostly positive regarding the first point, I feel I am mostly alone on the second point. If the rump session isn’t going away, I hope at least that we can all agree to stop announcing results that aren’t publicly available.
Let me address Dov’s first point, with which I sympathize. For starters, I also get the impression that research in our field sometimes feels more like a “competition” than the pursuit of science. (I do sometimes feel as if many people in the community think the point of research is to publish papers, rather than to do good science.) The rump session, which emphasizes “selling” results rather than explaining them, only reinforces this impression. There is also the larger issue that Dov raised, namely putting a timestamp on the claim that some problem is solved even when the proof is not yet written (and/or not yet been verified).
On the other hand, the rump session does have some positive aspects. Eliminating the rump session will not slow down the rate of progress in our field; better to know about other recent results (or even other groups working on as problem) than not to know about it or, perhaps worse, to end up with a situation where some people know and others don’t. So rather than ending rump sessions entirely, or trying to police which unpublished results can be presented and which ones cannot, maybe we as a community can agree on some “ground rules”. Here are some that I would agree with:
- Results that have appeared, or have already been accepted to appear, at other major crypto conferences should not be presented. If it will appear at another crypto conference, the community will hear about it; you do not need to further “advertise” your results by presenting them at a rump session. (Note: I think it is valid to present results that may be of interest to the crypto community that might be appearing at non(-major) crypto conferences. E.g., a result appearing at PODC that the community might otherwise be unaware of.)
- There needs to be some mechanism to deal with concurrent results: e.g., where one person presents a result at the rump session and then someone else claims they also solved the same problem. I’m not sure how the would work in practice, but I think this could actually be one benefit of the rump session in that it would prevent duplication of work.
- Presenting a result at a rump session should be viewed as imposing some responsibility to make a pre-print of the result available. I’m not interested in enforcing presenters to make pre-prints available; what I’m more interested in is some agreement from the community that if a pre-print is not made available in some reasonable amount of time then the question should still be considered unsolved. (We could also have presenters post retractions of their claimed results.) This would also help prevent another problem I have seen, where a submitted paper is rejected because it solves a problem that was claimed to have been solved at some previous rump session (whether the author of the submitted paper was aware of it or not).
Since I was listed as co-author on four rump session talks, I should at least mention that I only encouraged one of those talks (I won’t tell which one!), and then mainly because a student/postdoc was involved.