Fiction writers used to have to submit their manuscripts to 6 or 7 big corporations. Only these corporations could seriously publish a book. Room on library stacks has always been scarce. Only a tiny number of authors could ever become independently wealthy under this system. Amazon.com is changing the game by getting rid of the scarcity. Hugh Howey put his books for sale on Amazon (receiving 70% of the sales instead of the 12.5% offered by publishing houses) and he made a killing. He is a millionnaire by now. He did not have to convince a highly selective editor to accept his books. He simply wrote some great fiction. He created value and was rewarded for his work. He did not have to displace other authors on the bookshelves.

I am sure that many people do not consider him to be a real author because he self-published. Our society is very driven by this fight for status, for elitism. I think it is probably responsible for a lot of unnecessary stress. People overwork, pollute and die younger than they should because of it. And it affects science as well.

There is a common view in computer science research that the only publications that matter are those appearing at selective conferences. Conferences in computer science are characterized by a low acceptance rate (top conferences reject 90% of all papers). The more selective the conference, the better. Ideally you must prove that you belong to the top 1%. A journal article or a workshop paper is “wasted effort” in this respect.

Does it follow that journal articles are inefficient or even wasteful? According to DBLP, Donald Knuth (a living legend) published 120 journal articles, and 12 conference papers. The Turing Award recipient Peter Naur has 25 journal articles and 7 conference papers in DBLP. (The Turing Award is the Nobel prize of computer science.) Robert E. Kahn, another Turing Award recipient, has 12 journal articles and 2 conference papers. Even if we assume that they participated in many conferences that are not indexed by DBLP, it is undeniable that some influential computer scientists like to publish in journals.

But maybe all of the important work appears first at conferences? According to Fortnow, leading conferences regularly refuse to accept such work:

(…) nearly half of the Gödel Prize winners (given to the best CS theory papers after they’ve appeared in journals) were initially rejected or didn’t appear at all in the top theoretical computer science conferences. (Fortnow, 2009)

To land a paper in a very selective conference, you still had to beat incredible odds… acceptance rates are routinely under 10%… surely this says something about your work? Maybe being accepted by the most selective conferences proves your worth. Maybe not:

The view that conference rejection rates are a good proxy for conference quality did not hold up to scrutiny (Freyne, 2010)

I believe that people like to tell themselves simple stories about how one should succeed. Many of these simple stories are based on half-truths. Just like how fiction authors believe that they must land a competitive book deal to be a writer whereas none of us care about any of that. This status ranking game that you play… is probably much less important than you make it out to be on the long run.

Franceschet wrote an interesting survey where he identified the 10 most prolific computer science authors, the 10 most cited authors and the most prestigious computer scientists (i.e., Turing Award recipients). There was no overlap between the 3 lists. It is worth taking time to reflect on this fact.

  • If you could find a way, somehow, to become the most prolific computer scientist in the world, you are not likely to figure in the 10 most cited authors or win a Turing Award.
  • If you could become the most cited computer scientist in the world, you may not receive a Turing Award.

It means that if you are an extremely successful computer scientist, you are still likely to be left out from someone’s top-10 list. Maybe it means that you should not worry about how you are ranked.

There are also significant differences on how the 3 types of authors published.

  • To get a Turing Award, your publications may be unimportant. Out of the 16 Turing Award recipients considered by Franceschet, two thirds had fewer than 50 papers on DBLP and five had less than 30 papers. Alan Kay published less than 20 papers according to DBLP.
  • “(…) high impact scholars publish significantly less than prolific ones, and more frequently in journals.”

So while telling the world about what you do matters… you have a lot of freedom about it.

What should a sane computer scientist do then? His main focus should be on producing lasting contributions to his field. He should then publish them where they are likely to be noticed.

If all you have ever done is fight for scarce spots at a selective venues, you have achieved nothing of importance. Really important work creates tangible value that is self-evident.

Note: To be fair, I have never achieved anything of importance and probably never will. But I am having a lot of fun.

Further reading: Mentoring Advice on “Conferences Versus Journals” for CSE Faculty by Kevin W. Bowyer and How Are the Mighty Fallen: Rejected Classic Articles by Leading Economists by Gans and Shepherd.

8 Comments »

  1. In a big scheme of things, we are all nothing but a dust on the wind.

    Comment by Leonid Boytsov — 7/7/2014 @ 17:13

  2. This interesting point of view confounds certain things about the allegorical game. Take the bit on Hugh Howey: while it’s true that library shelf space is not the contest that matters, there still was always a contest over people’s pocket money, and even, over people’s entertainment time and money. Hugh Howey *did* eat the lunch of some other authors; he did displace them, if not on shelves, at least on the market. He has not invented a whole new market, he just found a very good way to compete and win.

    The idea that the game of “great value generation” is open and welcoming is naive and disingenuous. Of course, the cost of entry is not that high. Still, burning out remains easy to do and is a real risk despite the more noble goal of giving the world something of worth.

    Finally, I can’t help but point out how you, Daniel, propose this idea of a better game from quite the position of privilege.
    With all due respect, if you can bear my tickling, tenure is a pretty good net to bounce off when you’re not doing good at the game. You must agree that winning those few zero-sum games have their perks. Enjoy your risk-free endless fun — I know I would. :-)

    Comment by Benoit Hamelin — 7/7/2014 @ 22:54

  3. @Benoit

    Hugh Howey *did* eat the lunch of some other authors; he did displace them, if not on shelves, at least on the market. He has not invented a whole new market (…)

    But he did just that. The big publishers refuse to sell their ebooks for less than $10. Howey sold his ebooks for much less than that ($3 if I recall). Though I can afford $10 ebooks, I do not buy them. Many people are like me.

    Sure, my time is limited… but my time spent reading fiction is quite elastic… it depends very much on the availability of great content. Otherwise I do other things…

    I would not have been reading other books had I not purchased Howey’s ebooks.

    But more generally, I think that many markets are highly elastic. When Harry Potter came out, it did not hurt other authors… it probably helped them because it brought a new generation of readers.

    Science works this way. Einstein did not displace other physicists generally speaking. Sure, he did occupy one position at Princeton… but, on the whole, he probably helped create dozens of new jobs in physics.

    The idea that the game of “great value generation” is open and welcoming is naive and disingenuous.

    It is very hard to provide great value to others. But I am not sure that the other paths are easier for most.

    Finally, I can’t help but point out how you, Daniel, propose this idea of a better game from quite the position of privilege. With all due respect, if you can bear my tickling, tenure is a pretty good net to bounce off when you’re not doing good at the game. You must agree that winning those few zero-sum games have their perks. Enjoy your risk-free endless fun — I know I would.

    I genuinely believe that life is more fun when you try to provide value to others instead of focusing on glamour humping.

    I agree that being a tenured college professor is a privilege. You can dismiss my message because of that… but I do not think it is fair.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/7/2014 @ 0:10

  4. Thank you, Daniel, for your long reply. It refutes the best parts of my comments convincingly and it underscores a bit of my own hypocrisy.

    You are optimistic about market elasticity, but you are right. Opportunities do come to light, and often enough too. Also, now I better see your point that if somebody is going to compete somewhere, it best be in a useful contest in the first place. Your comment puts your post in a light that makes it more encouraging and uplifting than I first saw.

    Finally, I certainly don’t dismiss your point out of your position of privilege. You’re not trying to sell snake oil, you well know that hidden opportunities are, until found, hidden and risky. I walk away agreeing that competing in the game of value generation is certainly fun. It is obvious from my post that I have burned out myself (in a small way — I got better), but I have come back into the game. While I play it more carefully, I’m having fun again. So acting all risk-averse and raining on your parade was disingenuous of me.

    Comment by Benoit Hamelin — 8/7/2014 @ 7:18

  5. @Benoit

    Your arguments were quite reasonable. My blog post could easily be misinterpreted because it was not as well written as it could have. (I should make it clear that I was not offended by your comment in the least.)

    I think you have now nailed the message I wanted to share… On the long term, it is a lot more fun to focus on growing the size of the pie for everyone than to try a compete for scarce ressources…

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 8/7/2014 @ 7:56

  6. Thanks for this post. I’m a PhD student and I just had a paper rejected for the second time. This is a paper I really believed in. The rejection really hurt my motivation and my self-esteem as a computer scientist. It’s good to be reminded that conference rejections don’t necessarily mean that my work is worthless.

    Comment by Maxime — 14/7/2014 @ 22:32

  7. @Maxime

    Getting your paper accepted in a selective venue is not the definition of success. Not the one I use. Not the one you should use.

    I recommend setting your eyes on the real prize: doing useful research.

    You may also enjoy this post of mine:

    Become independent of peer review
    http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2009/10/26/become-independent-of-peer-review/

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 15/7/2014 @ 8:56

  8. I know over a hundred people who make a living playing Starcraft or commenting Starcraft games. (I am sure their number is rather in the thousands.) The DOTA2 International, playing today (July 21, 2014) has a prize pool of almost 11 million dollars – http://www.dota2.com/international/overview/

    None of these people displaced anybody – these are jobs that not only did not exist – they COULD NOT have existed 20 years ago.

    Comment by Marcel Popescu — 21/7/2014 @ 9:43

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