We shall now proceed

This is, at best, good for conference proceedings
My own PhD advisor, many a time, speaking of my work…

Submission of manuscripts to be included in the proceedings of an attended conference is widely regarded as an unrewarding task, at least in physics. Such publications are normally deemed of limited impact and little importance, in the evaluation of one’s scholarly production, the main reasons being the publication venue (seldom a prestigious journal), as well as the fact that peer review of these papers is commonly believed to be not as rigorous as for regularly submitted manuscripts (whether that is always true is not clear to me, especially with the quality of refereeing seen these days at prominent physics journals).
As a result, it is quite common to decline the invitation from the conference organizers to submit a manuscript to be included in the proceedings, as the prevalent feeling in the community is that, if the work is good enough to be published as a regular journal article, then that should be the preferred course of action, whereas if it is not, it ought not be published altogether. I have to confess upfront that I largely share such a sentiment.

To be sure, I do believe that conference proceedings have a place in the literature; if properly used, they may serve a worthwhile goal, namely the publication of articles aimed at summarizing the contribution that one has made in a specific field over an extended time period, which is often what is asked of a conference plenary speaker. There exist specialized journals (such as Review of Modern Physics) whose purpose is precisely that of assessing the status of specific sub-fields and areas of enquiry; however, articles published therein tend to be rather encyclopedic in spirit, as the author is also expected to review critically the work done by others on the same subject [0]. An article submitted as part of a conference proceedings should be more limited in scope, focusing exclusively on the progress made by the authors and their groups of collaborators. In that spirit, such an article may serve as high profile recognition for the leading role played by a scientist, together with the formal invitation to speak at the conference. All of this is highly regarded by university administrations in the evaluation of their faculty.

For the most part, however, conference proceedings include very short, typically hastily written papers, describing results that could be called “preliminary” by some stretch of imagination. They are utilized for purposes that range from the frivolous, to the specious, to the downright illegitimate.

Perhaps the most popular reason for publishing in conference proceedings is for one to inflate one’s own publication (and citation, of course) record. Putting together a bunch of short articles describing “incremental progress” (read: numbers that came out of a run that started the week before the submission) is not as time-consuming as actually going carefully and methodically though all the data, thinking about them, figuring out which results are reliable and which are flukes, trying to understand whether the calculation or the experiment did produce some insight or not (and if so, which), redoing some of the runs to double check that everything is accurate, and writing everything up in the concise yet informative way that is expected of an article submitted to a major physics journal.
Conference papers will likely not be subjected to the same level of scrutiny of a regularly submitted manuscript, and in the end will still be listed on one’s publication list, as if they were regular articles. Bean counters, er, I mean, university administrators, will often not see the difference. For a scholar whose productivity has taken a dip, or whose research program is going through a stall, conference proceedings can be a life saver.
And sometimes conference proceedings are a cheap way for someone “to get something out” of a project that failed, or in any case did not produce the outcome that had been hoped for [1].
Also, the case is often made that “a paper is a paper” and that “students need to publish”, hence the widespread use of conference proceedings. It is difficult to take such an argument seriously, though. A four page paper in the proceedings of a conference published in a journal of low impact factor will hardly make any difference in the career of an aspiring young scientist.

Now, questionable as the above motivations might seem, it is all still relatively harmless. A sneakier way of using conference proceedings is to be somewhat cavalier with the “in progress” connotation typically attributed to the work published therein, and include in a manuscript results that would be interesting if confirmed, but not yet sufficiently solid to be regarded as definitive, or state physical conclusions that are potentially important, but much too tentative to be taken seriously at the time of submission. In layman’s terms, this is often referred to as “going out on a limb”. But, why would anyone do that ? Isn’t one’s scientific credibility at stake ? Actually, in this case it’s essentially a gain-gain situation. For, if the results and the physical conclusions should turn out to be correct later on, one can claim priority (as in “We were the first ones to prove that…”). On the other hand, should the results be eventually disproved, one can take the lame way out (as in “Oh, well, but that was just a paper for the proceedings of that conference… ‘work in progress’ … organizers really wanted a manuscript, you know ?”) [2]. This practice is borderline dishonest, often leads to disputes among authors, and should be curbed.
The solution is simple: Include in conference proceedings invited articles only, i.e., eliminate contributed papers. They tend to be bad publications, useless at best, a source of confusion in the worst cases.

Hmmm…. I am not sure if I am happy with the quality of this blog entry… should I still post it ? Maybe I should look for some “blog proceedings”, somewhere….

[0] Although being asked to write one certainly constitutes a high profile acknowledgement, on the part of the community, of one’s influence and prestige, preparation of such a manuscript can prove quite a formidable task, keeping the author(s) busy for months, years at a time.
[1] Anecdote time: as the guest editor of the proceedings of a conference that I organized a few years back, I had one of the invited speakers try to smuggle in a paper describing the construction of an experimental apparatus, which had produced, at the time of the submission, no physical result whatsoever (leaving aside that such a paper would have had no place in the proceedings anyway, as it was not really pertinent to the subject of the conference, which was in theoretical physics). When I told him that I could not accept that paper (yes, I basically rejected it), he went ballistic at me, one of his arguments being “my students have worked very hard to build this machine, they deserve to get a paper out of it”…
[2] It is actually true that conference organizers, who have signed an agreement with the publisher, have often committed to coming up with so many pages worth of articles and are under pressure to deliver.

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2 Responses to “We shall now proceed”

  1. mareserinitatis Says:

    Must’ve been a fun conference you were at. 🙂

    I wrote a little bit about conferences last week sometime, and I think this phenomenon might be limited to certain disciplines.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    You know you want to….



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