Why does the ACM hate the planet?

I don't like to go on banging my anti-conference drum (well, I do, actually, but authorial conventions dictate that I feign reluctance), but I've been reading David Mackay's new book, Sustainable Energy -- without the hot air, and in it he points out that taking one intercontinental flight a year is equivalent in carbon emissions to driving 35km every day for that year. So if the ACM were to convert SIGIR and CIKM from physical to virtual conferences, it would have the carbon effect of taking 600 cars off the road (assume 600 attendees per conference, 1/2 of whom have to make an intercontinental flight).

5 Responses to “Why does the ACM hate the planet?”

  1. Danny Calegari says:

    Are the talks at least being webcast? It seems odd to me that not all (or even many) big important conferences do this.

  2. william says:

    They haven't in the past, and there is no indication that they will this time. It was raised as an idea at SIGIR 2008, but the objection (apart from inertia) was that student presenters occasionally given disastrous performances which they would not want publicly broadcast. About a third of the presentations at CIKM 2008 are available as webcasts, though apparently they only got them up online last month.

    What's the situation with conferences in mathematics? Are they an important venue for publications? How many conferences do you attend in the average year?

    As a note to self, the Very Large Database (VLDB) conference sequence is moving to a fast-turnaround quarterly journal format, with conference presentations being selected from the journal. Their reason for doing this is because of the load upon conference PC members and other volume-related issues, rather than for the reasons that I object to conferences. Nevertheless, it is an important precedent for other SIGs to follow. Their rationale and transition plans are available.

  3. Danny Calegari says:

    In mathematics, conferences are almost irrelevant to publication. Some large conferences publish "proceedings", but the standard for publication in such volumes is usually not very high, and they are generally not considered prestigious. So why attend conferences at all? Well, maybe for the following reasons:

    1. Social interaction with peers
    2. To get an overview of several developments in a specific area of interest (but this is what survey papers are for)
    3. To advertise one's own work, and make connections with power-brokers in the field

    Honestly, none of these reasons is very good, but I suspect number 3 is what keeps attendances up. Oh, and conferences generally tend not to be webcast, with a few significant exceptions (like those held at MSRI).

  4. Despite the objections to the conference culture, the majority of the "CS Elite" consider conference publications as much more important than journals. In fact, the CRA best practices memo legitimizes the practice of making conference publications the primary criteria for tenure in all of the top US Universities.

    There are some very interesting discussions related to this topic at:

    http://blog.computationalcomplexity.org/2009/04/vardi-are-conferences-worth-fixing.html

    http://agtb.wordpress.com/2009/04/25/on-vardis-question-on-conferences/

    The ridiculous control and cost of journal publications and the dubious practices of companies such as Elsevier make the only other alternative less than appealing as well.

  5. william says:

    Thanks, great links. I particularly enjoyed this:

    As an assistant professor, it often seems to me like the community is being taken hostage by the nostalgia of its founders, who seem to be the only ones enjoying and advocating for the conference system.

    I'm not sure that I understand what you mean by the "ridiculous [...] cost of journal publications", though. The cost of conference attendance is far higher than of journal subscription -- for the cost of one conference, a university can subscribe to five journals. Plus, on top of the cost of flying the academic to the conference, the university still has to pay for access to the proceedings!

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